Our Unit Chief Pilot, Mario Carretta, gives a great insight into the training that DSAA pilots undergo and answers a question that they are asked regularly.

Mario Carretta

Are you here for training? is a question that the pilots of Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance (DSAA) are commonly asked, when we are with the helicopter at landing sites, away from Henstridge.

Unfortunately, the answer is ‘no’. We will only land away from a designated aviation location (such as an airfield or hospital landing site), if we are on a mission and that mission is to deliver our critical care team to where they are needed the most.


However, the pilots are required to carry out a certain amount of training and testing, so that we can keep current and retain our licences. While some of the training occurs in the local skies around Henstridge, the majority is carried out at the Leonardo simulator facility in Sesto Calende, near Milan. Once a year, each of our pilots come off our roster and go to the simulator for three days with instructors and examiners from Specialist Aviation Services (DSAA’s air operator).

The training begins with some ground school, where we refresh our memories on things like aircraft limitations, aircraft systems, emergency procedures and the many regulations that govern our day-to-day flying. It’s then off to the simulator, which is a state-of-the-art facility that replicates the aircraft fairly accurately in most phases of flight, although the simulator is trickier to handle than the real aircraft when close to the ground.

DSAA is now a multi-pilot operation and so there are defined roles for each of the pilots, split up into pilot flying (PF) and pilot monitoring (PM) duties. Basically, the PF is on the controls and the PM assists them with other cockpit duties, such as reading out check lists, assisting with navigation and setting up of other aircraft systems.

The first element of training is carried out in good weather conditions, and we get two hours training in both the PF and PM roles; two pilots carry out the training together and swap roles between simulator slots.

View from the crew frosty fields Mario flying helicopter

There are many reasons for using a simulator, one being that you do not lose the operational aircraft to training, but primarily because many emergencies can be given in the simulator that would not be possible to practise in the real aircraft. Failures of critical systems, such as the tail rotor, hydraulic and electrical systems come thick and fast and the emergencies are introduced while we are simulating carrying out our helicopter emergency medical services role, which also adds to making the training more realistic.

After training in good weather, we then train for when we have to fly in cloud; another benefit of the simulator is that the weather conditions can be changed with the press of a few buttons. The aircraft is designed to assist us when flying in these difficult conditions and has a very capable autopilot that is easily programmed to take us to the destination airfield and then fly most of the approach automatically, with the pilot only having to intervene in the last few hundred feet. This still requires practice, as the aircraft will only do what you tell it to do!

Emergencies are also thrown into the mix, as flying in cloud adds another dimension to emergency handling. Most of our operational flying is carried out beneath the clouds and so this part of the simulator package is particularly beneficial.

Half Foggy landscape

Once the training is over, we are then required to complete our annual licence and proficiency checks as PF, which primarily consists of emergency handling scenarios. This takes about three hours and is flown in day, night and poor weather conditions, with a recent addition that we are now able to carry out our night vision goggle flying proficiency check in the simulator. A quick turnaround and it’s then time for us to act as PM for our ‘sim buddy’ while they carry out their licence and proficiency checks.

The final six hours in the simulator under test conditions is quite draining, but it brings together all the training you have just carried out and gives you the confidence that you could handle the emergency if it happened for real.