MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Army National Guard 1st Lt. Nick Sinopoli, a pilot with the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment in Madison, has created a training device he believes could help helicopter pilots better control their aircraft in dangerous weather.
The device is among the top 16 entries in this year’s National Guard Innovation Competition.
It consists of a visor that wraps around the pilot’s face and an electronic controller. It does not obscure vision until an iPad or smartphone app used by the instructor changes the visor’s opacity from clear to partially or fully obscured. This provides a more realistic simulation of clouds or fog where zero visibility can occur instantly, or where smoke from inside the aircraft can impede a pilot’s vision. When this occurs, pilots need to easily transition from visual flight rules (VFR) to instrument flight rules (IFR).
“Simply put, IFR means relying on the instruments for control and navigation of the aircraft, while VFR requires you to be able to look outside to control the aircraft and navigate,” Sinopoli said.
Sinopoli, who began his seven-year military career with the U.S. Navy before joining the Wisconsin Army National Guard, said the standard practice of pilots putting on and taking off hoods to obscure visibility, or the trainer putting his hand in front of the trainee’s face, detracts from the transition training.
“It’s not just bothersome,” Sinopoli said. “It disrupts training realism and value.”
A flight simulator can provide similar visibility scenarios, but Sinopoli said even full-motion simulators could not replicate acceleration forces. The pilot’s inner ear senses acceleration changes, which can send conflicting information to the brain in flight, leading to spatial disorientation.
Sinopoli is motivated by more than dissatisfaction with current training methods; he said he lost a friend to a spatial disorientation helicopter accident. He sold his car to pay for the patent for the device and has spent many long nights developing prototypes.
“Winning the National Guard Innovation Competition would create a path to getting the device into our cockpits, improving training and finally ending these tragic accidents,” Sinopoli said. “Every branch of the military flies helicopters in challenging environments. I think it would be really cool if the National Guard could lead the way on innovative weather training.”
Sinopoli said the device is being tested at flight schools in Detroit, Hawaii and with the FAA.
Judging for the semifinal round of the National Guard Innovation Competition wraps up May 12. The final round is in June. Sinopoli’s submission was one of 112 from all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia.