A virtual plane for Navy techs

In the past, there was just one way for a Navy petty officer to get his chops troubleshooting a Navy aircraft: getting his hands into the guts of a parked fighter jet. That jet might have been a stricken airplane set aside for training or perhaps it would a real live fighter plane. Either way — despite all the learning that preceded a first contact — it was an expensive lifestyle.

Recently, the Navy found a better way: Do maintenance training on a simulator the same way it approaches aviator training.

The goal is to create a computer program so sophisticated that the training exactly resembles working with a real jet, said Mark St. Moritz, vice president at American Systems, an information technology services firm. Using a touch screen, high-end graphics and a relational database of information about real aircraft systems, the maintenance simulator would allow trainees the same life-like freedom of movement that an aviator enjoys in a flight simulator.

The Navy commissioned American Systems to develop eight such simulators for F/A-18C maintenance training at a cost of $12.9 million in 2003. The service began deploying the systems in late 2006.

“It’s like getting a video game on the PlayStation 3 now — you actually feel like you’re in the car driving down the highway,” said David James, a Navy aviation electronic technician and instructor.

Because a database powers the simulator, trainees are free to behave as they would in real life — they’re not following a preprogrammed sequence of events. “Many times students have said the simulator is broken, but the simulator isn’t broken,” St. Moritz said. “It’s behaving as a real jet would.”

Expect military services to rely on virtual training more, said Col. Craig Langhauser, project manager of the Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation’s combined arms tactical trainers program. Training with live equipment is increasingly too costly in a time of high war expenses and trimmed budgets.

Also, an emerging generation of recruits expects virtual simulations. Virtual worlds “are in the home, on their Xboxes, they’re in their PlayStations,” Langhauser said. So-called digital natives want to cruise through a high-fidelity pixel landscape, learning as they go.

Digital immigrants — anybody with first-hand experience with typewriters — are a little less keen on virtual simulators. American Systems included a physical copy of an FA-18C cockpit at the insistence of the Navy, which also has senior enlisted personnel to think about. “The guys who came up through the years ... think you have to get in there and bust your knuckle” for the training to be genuine, St. Moritz said.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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