Imagine that you’re 15 years old and are learning to drive a car. But before you get behind the wheel, you have to spend a certain number of hours practicing on a video game that is designed to feel exactly like the car you will eventually drive.
For Air Force pilots and aircrew around the world, learning to fly and operate aircraft, training begins not in a plane but in simulators that replicate the look and movement of actual aircraft and are more sophisticated than the most advanced video game. From the controls in the cockpit to the movement of the yoke (steering wheel), everything must look, feel and react as realistic as possible to ensure crews develop a good foundation and ready to begin training in the air.
Training on simulators is not just for the inexperienced. Throughout their careers, experienced aircrews spend time on simulators, sharpening their airmanship as well as practicing the latest tactics and techniques.
A key player in supporting these operational training experiences is the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Simulators Program Office headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
With a budget of approximately $2 billion and 400 employees, the division is responsible for acquiring and maintaining more than 95 percent of the simulators in the Air Force, including simulators that train Airmen to operate and maintain virtually all of our aircraft. Not only does the organization support the U.S. Air Force, but in fiscal 2016, it helped 14 American allies acquire and sustain simulators.
John Carr, deputy for the Simulators Program Office, said that the organization provides an important capability for our warfighters, improving readiness for the Air Force and American allies.
“Fundamentally, simulators are safer, more efficient and far less expensive than training on aircraft,” Carr said. “They provide maintainers and aircrew members their first realistic aircraft-related experiences in closely observed, controlled environments. Additionally, these simulators support full mission training, simulating wartime scenarios, tying together aircrews around the world to hone their skills with adrenaline-pumping combat realism.”
Carr added that the program office is constantly working to update and improve the training experience for Airmen, including increasing the type of scenarios in simulators in order to better reflect reality and what they could experience in the future.
One example he gave is the work the organization is doing to enhance distributed mission operations; expanding the numbers and types of aircraft simulators that can be connected together for combat mission training and exploring how the training can interact with in-flight aircraft.
The office is also working to enhance virtual air refueling capability in the simulators.
“Imagine bringing two aircraft within about 15 feet of each other and holding that position for an extended period of time,” Carr said. “As we improve the simulators, all training for this very difficult task will be eliminated from the aircraft, freeing up valuable flying time.”
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Another key benefit of simulators is that they help the Air Force save flight hours on an aging fleet.
Second Lt. Maria Duffy, a C-17 co-pilot with the 445th Airlift Wing headquartered at Wright-Patterson, said that simulators have made her a better pilot.
“You can pretty much do anything in the simulator you can do in the plane,” Duffy said. “Anything you need to practice on you can do it in the simulator. You can make mistakes and learn your techniques and then fly the plane and do it flawlessly.”