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Modified simulator provides first class flight training

US Air Forces in Europe News Service


By 2nd Lt. Rosaire Bushey 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (USAFENS) -- From the right hand seat in the KC-135 flight deck you can hear the windup of the tanker's four engines. Outside, it's partly overcast with more than 9,000 feet of runway straight ahead. Looking around, you can't quite make out the plane's engines.

But that's okay, because there aren't any.

Instead of engines, what you can see, if you look for it, is a single sheet of mirrored mylar which wraps more than 225 degrees around the nose of the "aircraft" and reflects a projected image of a stunningly realistic airfield image. The images come courtesy of a bank of computers which feed topographical and other data to one of the simulator's five projectors so pilots and crews can fly to, from, over and around, realistic landscapes, airfields, mountains, buildings and a host of other terrain features.

"The new screen is just one of a group of enhancements we've been working on for the last couple months," said Bruce Golson, pilot instructor for FlightSafety Services Corp., the contractor for the simulator. "In mid-July we brought the sim down for a visual upgrade enhancement and we finished Oct. 26 and the difference is astounding."

The differences are numerous, and well they should be, as the $10 million price tag on the upgrades essentially doubled the price of the simulator. From the outside, the most apparent difference is the sheer size of the module. Mounted on six independently mobile hydraulic legs, the simulator now reaches a height of 45 feet--about 12 feet higher than it was before the modifications. Inside the changes are no less apparent.

"The layout hasn't changed much," Golson said, "because it's a replica of the flight deck of the KC-135. What has changed, however, is what the crew sees."

Before the changes, images were shown basically on television screens through four windows and all missions were night missions because of software limitations.

"Now crews have more than 225 degrees of visual so they can look out the side windows--it really does add a lot to the environment within the cabin," he said. "In addition the software upgrades have given us the ability to simulate daylight missions and new software is under development to enhance the training even further."

The new software programs are essentially areas aircrews can train "over." A Mildenhall program is currently under development that Golson said will be one of the most complete programs available when it's finished, with many landmarks such as buildings on the base incorporated into the software.

Before going wheels up in the sim, pilots and crews can expect an hour's worth of pre-brief, followed by 30 minutes of crew sortie study time. A three-hour training mission is usually followed up with an hour of special purpose operational training and another 30 minute debrief.

"This isn't a joyride by any stretch of the imagination," Golson said. "You don't just climb in and fly around. There is a lot of serious training that takes place here and that's why the Air Force has spent more than $20 million on this facility and equipment."

The training takes place not just in the simulator itself, but also in adjacent classrooms. There are 96 computer-based training lessons available, in addition to a range of simulator-based experiences.

"This is my fourth sim flight this week," said Capt. Paul Roberts, 351st Air Refueling Squadron pilot. "It's not always possible to fly because of deployments, maintenance and other factors, so it's nice to be able to have a system as good as this for experience and training. I'd rather learn things here than at 25,000 feet."

"What we want to do is give crews an opportunity to handle different situations that they hopefully will never have to deal with for real," said Golson. "One example of this is an engine seizure. I know of only twice that this has ever happened for real which means there are exactly four pilots out there who have experienced it in flight. By replicating this as best we can, we give all the crews who come through the sim a chance to feel what it's like so if it does happen to them they know what it is."

The six hydraulic legs of the simulator provide a huge amount of depth to the simulator experience, offering forward, backward, side to side and "yawing" movements that replicate aircraft movements.

"When you're in here, especially now with the upgrades, it's easy to feel like you're in a plane," Golson said, "and that's exactly what we're trying to recreate. Every mistake made in here is hopefully one less that will be made at 28,000 feet where a slight miscue could be disastrous. When put in that context, spending what is a significant portion of the cost of one tanker on a simulator that runs for 40 or 50 hours a week training crews is a bargain."

Adding to the bargain, the simulator is also being used by Turkish air force KC-135 pilots who come to RAF Mildenhall for a week-long training program.

"We're one of only two of these simulators outside the United States," Golson said, "So it's a lot less expensive for the Turkish pilots to come here. We run them through five of the six missions scenarios we have available and they take that training back with them."

In addition to the Turkish pilots, the simulator also provides training for 95th Reconnaissance Squadron, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., crews; and provides field training detachment maintenance training; maintenance engine run training and other hydraulic and engine systems training programs.

"The investment in the simulator is about being able to do more," Golson said. "One of the best parts is, they get to do it as much as necessary and it doesn't add more hours and wear and tear on the aircraft, saving a lot of time and money and giving our crews the best training possible."

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