Virtual world of simulators helps train pilots
Simulator controller/instructor George Busfield, right, guides Freedom ENC writer Drew C. Wilson, left, as the student pilot attempts to fly an MV-22 to refuel behind a KC-130J at the 2nd Marine Air Wing Aviation Training System Site at New River recently.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a monthly series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Marine aviation, which began on May 22, 1912, when 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham reported to Annapolis, Md., for flight training.
Instructor George Busfield gradually eased his grip on the stick and let the trainee take control.
“Okay. Now you’re flying,” Busfield said as the MV-22 Osprey ascended somewhere over Onslow County.
Two enormous rotors swirled out the left and right cockpit windows of the aircraft.
With his right hand on the stick and his left hand on the throttle, the student used his left thumb to roll a dial to transition the two engines to a horizontal position, and the Osprey went from being a helicopter to a more conventional fixed wing plane.
In short order, a KC-130J Hercules refueler appeared in the distance.
As best he could, the student pilot throttled up and guided the Osprey toward one of two hoses trailing from the big refueler.
Plugging in seemed to be easier than maintaining the connection and the trainee wobbled wildly in the draft from the big transport. The student struggled to maintain control, and in one quick moment there was a flash of flame as the two planes collided in a ball of fire.
Fortunately for the crews of both airplanes, this was just a test in one of the super high fidelity simulators at the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Aviation Training System at the Marine Aviation Training System Site at New River.
Inside the walls of several high security sites at Cherry Point, New River and Beaufort, S.C., about 220 Marines, federal employees and contractors support a series of computer-based simulators for new and veteran pilots.
New River’s simulators school pilots on the AH-1W Cobra, the UH-1N/Y Huey, the CH-53E Super Stallion and the MV-22B Osprey. At Cherry Point, the focus is on the KC-130J Hercules, the AV-8B Harrier, the EA-6B Prowler and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The Beaufort site trains for the F/A-18 Hornet.
New pilots of the MV-22 spend about 60 percent of their time in the simulator.
Capt. Robert E. Wicker, flight leadership standardization evaluator at New River, said the V-22 simulator is about a 90-percent match of actual flight.
“It’s one of those to be able to see it, do it, hear it, feel it before we’re actually going out onto a mission or actually going out onto a training event that it pays great dividends,” he said.
Many of the simulators are “full motion,” which means the pilot experiences the pitch, roll and yaw axis of normal flight.
From the ground, the simulators look a bit like lopsided globes suspended by a set of oversized shock absorbers.
Inside the simulator, the cockpit is made to operate as much like the real thing as possible.
“The simulator cockpit is identical to the actual aircraft. We actually use aircraft parts for the cockpit itself,” Busfield said. “A person can transfer everything he gets here in terms of flying skills and move it to the airplane.”
Display of the terrain out the windows is remarkably realistic with trees, roads, cars and buildings all generated from satellite photographs massaged into three dimensions.
Each tug of the control stick is immediately answered with a corresponding readjustment of the virtual environment seen outside of the cockpit windows.
“I can make it cloudy. I can make it rain. I can make it hot or cold so it can affect the performance of the aircraft — all simulated,” said Rich “Shooter” Spencer, a former Cobra pilot who now acts as a controller/instructor on the UH-1 Huey simulator. “ … We want precision pilots. In other words, if you’re supposed to hit a point on time and altitude and airspeed, your best pilots can do that. Anybody can get in here and flail around, but to be able to fly a very precision airplane and be where you’re supposed to be on time is what we’re after, plus having the judgment to do things right when you’re in combat mode.”
Pilots can train in a virtual environment of areas where they will soon be deploying, Mike Wood, an AH-1W simulator instructor said.
“There’s databases in here right now that are set up in Afghanistan,” Wood said. “You are simulating the environmental conditions right off the bat the helicopter would experience. When you’re at a higher altitude or at a higher temperature, the aircraft basically doesn’t have as much power.
“They learn that in the simulator before they even go there.”
Virtual crew training
The new Marine Common Air Crew Trainer at New River is the very first in the Marine Corps.
Instead of a cockpit, the trainer is in the form of the cargo bay of a CH-53E. A set of 37 computers produce a complete blended image for the rear loading door, the side gunnery port and the floor external lift hatch.
Jack Suter, who trains air crews and pilots using his 32 years of experience in the Marine Corps as a CH-53 pilot, said crews train on external loads by giving pilots instructions on how to hook up.
“He gives them directions. They make all the calls. Come left, come right, up, down,” Suter said. “They hook it up. They transport it to wherever they want it.”
Brian Ormsby, program manager for Pathfinder Systems, which built the system, said the enlisted simulator can link to a piloted simulator so that the two act as one during the training while building a trust and teamwork among the flight crew.
Four speakers mounted above the cabin produce noise from the rotor, turbines and enemy fire. The 50-caliber gun also imitates firing noise that comes through the speakers.
“We have shakers in the floor that imitate the vibration of the helicopter actually flying,” Ormsby said. “We even have a device that has wind that comes across the window that gives you the effect of flying.”
Saving money and lives
Lt. Col. Steve Treichel, who trains KC-130J pilots for three Cherry Point transport and refueling squadrons, said the simulators save the government money.
“The work that’s being done in this simulator takes the place of eight aircraft,” he said. “The eight aircraft that we used to fly, pay the fuel, the maintenance and the parts, got replaced by one simulator.
A recent study prepared for Congress indicated the difference in cost of flying the KC-130J simulator versus flying the actual aircraft. The study suggested that while the training value between the two is equivalent, the cost per flight hour in the simulator is about eight times less than the cost of flying the same flight hour in the actual aircraft.
Johnson said pilots can experience the worst things possible in the simulator at no risk to their lives or the aircraft.
“We can obviously put them through the ringer, and the beauty of the whole thing is if they don’t do it right, they can always just do it again,” he said. “Obviously there is a big savings involved in that. You can lose the aircraft several times and still walk away.”
The average new AV-8B Harrier pilot goes through about 20 simulators before getting in the actual jet. Student pilots spend 40 to 50 percent of their time in a simulator, while fleet pilots spend about 30 percent.
Learning how to respond during an emergency is perhaps the most important thing being taught in the classrooms and simulators.
“That simulator is much more important for emergency procedures,” said Maj. David Moore, officer in charge at the MATSS site at New River. “There has to be an automatic response, an innate response. When A happens I do B and C — those kinds of muscle memories.”
One new aspect of virtual training is just now emerging, the Network Exercise Control Center.
Soon, every training system will connect worldwide. Pilots in simulators from Cherry Point and New River will be able to join pilots in simulators on the West Coast and beyond.
Cobra pilots will train with Osprey pilots, who will train with Harrier pilots and so forth on an interconnected virtual battlefield in real time.
Missions can be rehearsed with all of the support elements, in the air and on the ground.
Command and control trainees will also be part of the big picture in this virtual world.
In years past such missions would be conducted using the actual aircraft and be vulnerable to detection from satellite or other observers.
Practice missions on the NECC could remain top secret and maximize the likelihood of the mission’s success.
The NECC control center is a classified room where large flat screens show the activities of all the connected simulators. It’s been called the future of Marine aviation training by those involved in the state-of-the-art system.
“That has been a great leap, and we are seeing tremendous benefits from having those pilots interacting with one another,” said Lt. Col. Joe Williams, officer in charge of the MATSS site at Cherry Point. “That’s the leap in where this technology has taken us, from the individual pilot’s perspective to a war fighting unit perspective.”