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MCTC unveils riverboat pilot training simulator

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Mountwest Community and Technical College is expanding its transportation program to further train people who move coal and other commodities on the inland waterways.

On Dec. 17, MCTC's Inland Waterways Academy dedicated its Full Mission Wheelhouse Simulator. The simulator is a series of computers and television screens coupled with controls used in towboat pilothouses to give students a taste of what it's like to steer boats in various conditions.

"With this we can put them in situations they normally would not experience and teach them how to get out of them safely," said John Whiteley, executive director of workforce development at MCTC.

Whiteley said the simulator can help aspiring pilots to navigate difficult spots on the river, such as turning into the Kanawha River from the Ohio River at Point Pleasant or navigating through the numerous bridges in bends at Cincinnati.

"With this you can go ahead and put them through something like that, and if they hit the bridge, so what? You stop, go back and do it again," Whiteley said. "If they do it on a real boat and they hit the bridge, you've got millions of dollars worth of damage."

A modern towboat used to push coal or other products on the Ohio can cost $10 million or more new. A coal barge can cost about $1 million. A boat can push 15 barges with 1,500 tons of coal or more in each barge.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., spoke at the dedication. MCTC officials credited him with securing most of the funding used to build the simulator. Rahall noted that one 15-barge coal tow can haul more coal than 200 rail cars or 1,000 trucks.

"Our coal is growing in worldwide demand," he said. "We know barges are going to be the way to move that."

West Virginia leads the nation in coal exports, Rahall said, and last year, the state exported about $5 billion worth of coal, and much of that moved on the waterways. One study showed river transportation contributes about $1.6 billion to the state's economy, he said.

Although coal faces what Rahall called "a few hurdles," the congressman said he expects the industry to rebound.

The simulator occupies two rooms at the Tri-State Fire Academy just outside Huntington city limits on West Virginia 2. One room is the simulated pilothouse with seven screens, or visual channels, laid out as in a modern boat. One channel is behind where the pilot stands and offers a simulated rear view. The other has computers and controls for an instructor to select scenarios — river, weather, time of day, obstacles — for the student to deal with.

The Huntington simulator is the second on the Ohio River that is used for pilot training. The other is at Paducah, Ky. The Paducah program is known nationally and internationally. Whiteley said MCTC wants its program to equal or surpass Paducah's someday. 

Companies most active on the Ohio and Kanawha rivers in West Virginia are American Electric Power, Amherst Madison, Campbell Transportation, Crounse Corp., Ingram Marine and Marathon Petroleum.

The lowermost lock and dam on the Ohio River in West Virginia is the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam between Point Pleasant and Huntington. In October, the Byrd locks handled slightly more than 3 million tons of cargo, and about 1.4 million tons of that was coal. Another 672,000 tons was crude materials and 368,000 tons was petroleum products.

The uppermost locks on the Ohio in West Virginia are at New Cumberland. In October, New Cumberland handled about 2.43 million tons of cargo. Nearly 1.5 million tons of that was coal, and almost all of that was upbound.

River transportation in West Virginia is mainly on the Ohio and Kanawha rivers with some on the Monongahela, but the Big Sandy, Little Kanawha and Elk rivers also are navigable and handle river traffic.

The time a person working on a boat varies according to the company. Some work three to four weeks at a time, then have the same amount of time off. While on the boat, most people work two six-hour shifts per day, seven days a week.

Whiteley said the simulator cost about $325,000. He said $300,000 came from a federal grant in partnership with the Marshall University Research Corp. and the Rahall Transportation Institute, $20,000 from the West Virginia CTC system and $5,000 from Mountwest.

The demonstration on Dec. 17 showed guests problems that can arise running the Mississippi River downbound in the New Orleans area. Whiteley said the simulator also has scenarios from the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill. He said he hopes to obtain a program for the mouth of the Kanawha at Point Pleasant, and he would like to add the Huntington and Cincinnati areas, too.

Jeff Topping, an instructor at the Inland Waterways Academy, said the school offers two training programs for working on the river. One is a seven-day course for people seeking entry-level and local jobs. That class teaches basic skills and safety. The other is a two-year associate degree program.

MCTC also offers recertification for licenses pilots who need refresher training in radar use.

Whiteley said the academy has been offering a course for steersmen since about 2002. Steersmen are deckhands who have worked about three years and who want to become pilots. A steersman may steer a boat while a licensed pilot watches.

Soon the academy will offer a course in wheelhouse resource management, Whiteley said. That course will include topics in on-the-spot decision-making in dangerous situations, he said.

Kristy Wood, director of the transportation program at MCTC, said Mountwest has about 120 students in transportation-related, two-year degree courses. The first full class of 20 is scheduled to graduate in spring 2014, she said.

Wood said MCTC offers training in transportation management, aviation, maritime and railway. It plans to start a degree program for the trucking industry. Transit is next, she said.

"Most of the people in the program want to move up in their field and they hit a ceiling that requires postsecondary education," she said.

Students take general education classes, transportation core classes and classes specific to their transportation modes, she said.

The program has students from 17 states because the program is completely online, Wood said. Several students work on boats and are away from home up to 30 days at a time. But they can still do coursework over the Internet as long as they meet scheduled completion dates, she said.