WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (WDTN) — Before taking to the skies, aircrews have to go through hours of training, and they do it through flight simulation.
The Simulators Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) opened in May, helping crews train for missions and exploring new technologies that are beneficial to the government.
“It’s also nicknamed the Sims Holodeck because we’re a bunch of Star Trek fans,” said Margaret Merkle, the chief of innovation programs for the Simulators Division at WPAFB. “In Star Trek lore, the Holodeck was a place to go experience new things and work with other people and other technologies. In many episodes it was seen as an entertainment space, but in some, it was actually a place where they could simulate a problem and solve that problem.”
That’s what they do inside the lab, and they focus on aircrew simulation. It’s a safe way to train from the ground before taking off.
Merkle said over time, technology for training has evolved.
“In the past, we built simulators as a complete replica of the aircraft cockpit and all of its systems on the ground. Today, we can use video game technology and video game hardware to simulate that experience with a less expensive device,” said Merkle.
She said the Air Force has done simulation training for decades, but it’s not just for the pilots. Anyone on the aircrew goes through some sort of simulation training.
“We tend to focus on the flight deck with the pilot and the copilot, but there are also navigators and weapons system operators that go through this training,” said Merkle.
Load masters and other crew members in the back of the aircraft providing support for a mission also go through training.
Training is broken up into four phases, starting with undergraduate pilot training.
“This is where you get your wings. You learn to fly. You learn airmanship,” said Merkle.
Following the first phase, there’s an initial qualification, putting crews in the aircraft they’ll fly. From there, crews will learn the mission their aircraft plays. Phase four is an annual certification to keep qualifications up to date.
“Typically it’s dozens of hours of simulation throughout the career and throughout the various phases of training. It depends on the aircraft though,” said Merkle.
Training behind a computer screen, simulation saves on costs with no real aircraft maintenance and the opportunity to prepare for the unexpected.
“There is the cost of things you don’t want to do in an aircraft. We don’t want to crash them. We don’t want to test ejection seats unless you actually have to,” said Merkle. “But you want to have an ability to train those things in a safe environment.”
It allows for crews to train for all possible scenarios safely by using high-tech video gaming and digital combat simulators. They’re able to incorporate the best technology and use that in military environments, keeping up with advancements and investments industry is making.
“There’s always opportunities not just in the cockpit, but in lots of other positions in the Air Force,” said Merkle. “When the first Top Gun movie came out, there was a large increase (in applicants) but the Air Force is always looking for flyers.”