ICARUS Device Enhances IFR Training

The U.S. Army has expanded the ICARUS Devices Airworthiness Release fleetwide to include every UH-60L and UH/HH-60M Blackhawk Helicopter, the company said.

The ICARUS Device is a smart, view-limiting device made of a PDLC film that the pilot wears in front of their eyes, either clamped onto a headset or clipped into a flight helmet. [Courtesy: ICARUS]

"Get on the gauges! Stay on the gauges!"

With this phrase, my instrument instructor took me into the clouds for the first time. We were on an IFR flight plan on a Marginal VFR (MVFR) day. He warned me that going in and out of the clouds, with that frequent change from light to dark and back again would induce spatial disorientation. He was correct. 

I also asked for this. I wanted at least 15 hours of actual IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) before I took the checkride. I had been reading accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board, and I was disturbed by how many of those accidents were attributed to inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions by a pilot who was either untrained, had never been in actual IMC, or lacked proficiency. I wanted to lessen my risk of startle factor, as the startle factor and spatial disorientation can lead to a loss of control.

Nick Sinopoli, the inventor of the ICARUS Device, shares a similar view. The name ICARUS is an acronym; it stands for Instrument Conditions Awareness Recognition and Understanding System. Sinopoli, who is rated in both helicopters and airplanes and holds an engineering degree from Purdue University, invented the device in 2016 after losing a friend in an aviation accident.

The ICARUS Device

Most view-limiting devices used for IFR training are basically hoods or glasses designed to limit the pilot's field of view to the instrument panel. The limited view remains until the pilot removes the device. Simulated IFR to VFR is instantaneous, as is the reverse—ready for IFR? Put the device on. Want out? Take it off. That's not how it works in the real world, says Sinopoli, "IFR can sneak up on you."

According to Sinopoli, the ICARUS Device is a smart, view-limiting device made of a polymer dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC) film that the pilot wears in front of their eyes, either clamped onto a hat or headset or clipped into a flight helmet. The PDLC is powered by a battery. The device is paired with an app controlled by the flight instructor. The CFII can degrade the visual conditions gradually, allowing the client to experience the sensation of a sudden loss of outside visual cues while flying in the actual aircraft. There is also the option for the CFII to press a button to bring on the clouds, and the rate and amount of occlusion can also be adjusted by the CFII for a more realistic IFR experience.

"The old hoods haven’t changed since 1929, and they can’t change visibility," said Erik Sabiston, a professional pilot and co-founder of ICARUS Devices. "They can’t replicate marginal VFR, simulate dust and snow, or replicate breaking out at minimums on a precision approach and then reentering the clouds, necessitating a missed approach,” he said.

“Both the NTSB and the FAA know for certain that the startle effect is the primary danger to pilots when they fly into low visibility conditions unexpectedly," Sabiston continued. “After the crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others, the NTSB asked the FAA to find a new way to accurately simulate spatial disorientation. ICARUS is the first device in the world that does exactly that."

FLYING Test Flies the Device

Nick Sinopoli allowed FLYING to try out the ICARUS Device. Unfortunately, Seattle was experiencing LIFR (low instrument flight rules) with a freezing level down to the surface so a flight in the Cessna 172 was not an option.

Sinopoli rolled with the punches, saying, "You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can't predict the weather," so we ended up using a Redbird FMX Advanced Aviation Training Device (AATD) as a test platform. I wanted to see if it would work with the AATD, because one of the complaints the learners make is that they know something is about to happen when they hear the instructor tapping on the keyboard or tablet. Sinopoli said ICARUS has found a way around that.

The ICARUS Device can clip to a headset, a flight helmet or a ball cap and once installed, you are looking at the world through a screen of clear plastic—at first.

I programmed the FMX for MVFR for a flight between Pierce County Thun Field (KPLU) to Tacoma Narrows (KTIW). This is a quick flight, a mere 15nm to the west for the ILS 17. The FMX was programmed for motion, moderate turbulence, and a crosswind just to be festive.

With the ICARUS Device, there were no audible cues, as Sinopoli adjusted the visibility with the app, and I found myself moving in and out of IFR conditions. I adjusted my scan accordingly and Sinopoli played along, reducing and enhancing visibility, as in right when you think you have the runway made and start to relax, here comes the fog. Stay ahead of the airplane and execute the missed approach.

Sinopoli says they already have approximately 300 devices, which run about $1,250, in use around the U.S. at major flight schools and training centers. The unit is made in the U.S., he noted.

Military Application

Sinopoli, who in addition to being an inventor is an Air Assault pilot in the National Guard,  announced that the U.S. Army has expanded the ICARUS Devices Airworthiness Release fleetwide to include every UH-60L and UH/HH-60M Blackhawk Helicopter. For the last year, multiple training and operational units have been using ICARUS with a unit-specific AWR (Airworthiness Release).

According to Sinopoli, the military AWR is similar to the civilian Supplemental Type Certificate.

"Basically the Army has now allowed any Army Blackhawk unit to fly with the device. Previously, with the AWR, just a few units could train with it." Sinopoli said, adding that since the device does not require mounting or aircraft power—it has a self-contained battery and an STC is not necessary.

“The death rates for Inadvertent Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IIMC) are unacceptable for our soldiers," Sabiston said. "No other device but ICARUS can accurately replicate the inputs or mental challenges that the startle effect places upon our aircrews. If you can survive your first IIMC, chances are you will never have a problem again. When you train the stress of the Startle Effect out of pilots, they survive the real thing. Multiple lives have already been saved by the device.”

ICARUS Devices will continue to work closely with U.S. Army Aviation units to further develop and deploy associated Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures. The ICARUS team anticipates fielding the device with other airframes in the Army and branches of the Military for use in scenario-based training.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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