The US Navy and the Office of Naval Research Global (ONR Global) are developing a simulator program to train aircraft carrier flight deck crews in a virtual environment. The expandable, immersive 3D technology is based on video games and for the first time allows flight controllers, supervisors, catapult crews, and watch stations to train together without the need for an actual ship.
They say that there's no substitute for experience, but there are some situations where simulations are extremely desirable. One example is the flight deck of a strike carrier with its hectic, seemingly chaotic rush of high-tech fighter aircraft and helicopters taking off and landing at all hours of the day and night.
If you've never seen an aircraft carrier in the middle of a full-on flight operation, there aren't many things in the world that seem less coordinated. Like a small army of seagoing ants, sailors, marines, and air crews appear to be rushing about in a complete panic as aircraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars rocket off deck or come crashing to a jarring halt as they land – all without killing anyone on a regular basis.
It may seem like luck, but it's actually the result of intense, detailed, and rigorous training where everyone knows their job so well that they can do them by pure reflex on the run under even the most difficult conditions. This level of finely-honed training is what sets the major naval air powers well apart from the second tiers, but such training is incredibly expensive and nearly as dangerous as actual combat.
To cut costs and improve training, the ONR Global TechSolutions project in cooperation with the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) has created the Flight Deck Crew Refresher Training Expansion Packs (TEPs). These provide controllers and deck crews with the same kind of simulators that the pilots use for practicing carrier take offs and landings. This means more training hours without tying up an entire carrier.
So far, there are three TEPs focusing on the Primary Flight Control team, the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) team, and the Catapult Launch Team. In other words, the personnel charged with getting the aircraft launched and then recovering them safely. The simulation uses screens and VR headsets as well as ship's systems, computer-generated characters, and live players. These allow the system to not only simulate normal operations, but also a range of real-life emergency scenarios.
"This is really the first example I've seen of extending the value of a simulation environment to such an essential, tangible thing as a carrier flight deck," says Commander Mehdi Akacem, Air Boss aboard USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). "It's really a need we've had for years, one we've been able to get by without because of the grit and will of our Sailors and Marines."
The video below discusses the virtual flight deck simulator.
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