A generation ago, helicopter pilots learned the intricacies of flight and the complexities of the cyclic and collective pretty much the old-fashioned way: They just flew, for real, taking to the air and clocking hours in the cockpit. For perhaps five or 10 percent of the time, they passed the time grounded in digital flight simulators, with simple graphics on flat two-dimensional images and primitive sets of controls.
These days, thanks in part to meteoric advances in video-gaming technologies and high-fidelity computer graphics, Marine Corps pilots will spend 50 percent of their training time flying simulated missions seated in a growing collection of high-tech flight simulators.
The latest trainers to go operational became official at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on July 15, when the Marine Corps dedicated its newest and first pair of high-tech full-motion flight simulators to train pilots in its growing inventory of new and upgraded four-bladed helicopters, the UN-1Y Huey and the AH-1Z Super Cobra. The simulators, built and designed by Flight Safety International, Bell Helicopter Textron’s prime subcontractor for the project, bring to four the number of H-1 trainers (and six overall helicopter trainers at Camp Pendleton) available at the base to aircrews, although the newest pair are the only full-motion simulators.
“This is going to make us better warfighters. It’s as simple as that,” Maj. Gen. Thomas Conant, who commands 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, said at the dedication ceremony. Over time, “it’s going to save a lot of lives. We could use so much more of these simulators.”
The Marine Corps spent nearly $31 million for both simulators. It spent another $2 million to renovate the former warehouse building, a project that included four supporting piers buried 90 feet into the ground, deep enough to reach the bedrock that lines the nearby Santa Margarita River.
Officials say the project cost pales when compared to the tradeoff in improved warfighting and aircrews’ skills and, ultimately, safer flight training. “It does make a difference,” said Col. Thomas Weidley, a helicopter pilot who commands the “skid” community of Hueys and Super Cobras at Camp Pendleton-based Marine Aircraft Group 39. “Every dollar spent on these devices is worth it.”
For now, about a dozen Yankee and Zulu pilots are training in the simulators each day, but it won’t be long before 20 pilots can flow through the trainers, said Maj. Phillip Tucker, officer in charge of Marine Aviation Training Systems Squadron at Camp Pendleton.
At first glance, the pair of flight simulators – they look like huge marshmallows atop a set of legs – seemed like they were about to walk out of the brightly-lit, air-conditioned building. It’s no video game, and certainly not the $16 flight simulator rides you’d find at amusement parks and aircraft museums.
But inside each trainer, aviators wearing advanced helmets with mounted displays encounter a cockpit identical in just about every way as the real thing, with switches and buttons and “glass cockpit” digital screens, even the fuse box placed exactly where they are in the Huey and Super Cobra. Large domed projection screens provide realistic, 270-degree views from the cockpits. While officials didn’t turn on the simulators’ “full motion” mode for the dedication ceremony, instructors say that even just the moving graphic images can be enough to get someone dizzy or even nauseous, just like in real flight.
The simulators, with a half-million lines of software codes and more than 100 hardware systems and software programs integrated in the domed trainer, are designed to mimic the real thing. In fact, officials say, the simulators provide a virtual reality of flight that is 99 percent of what pilots experience for real when flying the real aircraft.
It can even impress even pilots accustomed to 2G corkscrew turns in combat or landing on naval flight decks pitching in high seas. “Their jaws just drop. They’re like, wow,” said Mohammed Ali, a software engineer with Bell Helicopter, the Fort Worth, Texas-based aircraft manufacturer that’s building the H-1s. Instructors with Cubic Corp., a San Diego-based defense firm, can put pilots just about anywhere, including naval ships and gas-oil platforms as well as bases in Afghanistan, in any environment, from electrical storms to sandstorms, and through any of 271 malfunctions and flight emergencies. Autorotation, anyone?
Not too far into the future, officials say, networking will enable pilots flying in simulators to join in missions with aircrews training in simulators at other locations. Marine Corps officials expect to see the full integration of its training systems that ultimately will enable the virtual training of an air-ground unit, for real. “They haven’t seen an integrated aircraft trainer like that. It’s completely integrated,” Ali said of the new simulators. “We can also pair with the older devices and bring them on the network.”