Flight simulation at WPAFB helps aircrews train

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (WDTN) — Before flying, crews must go through hours of training, and they do it through flight simulation.

The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) Simulator Division opened in May, helping aircrews train for missions and exploring new technologies beneficial to the government.

“It’s also dubbed the Sims Holodeck because we’re a group of Star Trek fans,” said Margaret Merkle, Innovation Programs Manager for the Simulator Division at WPAFB. “In Star Trek lore, the Holodeck was a place to go to discover new things and work with other people and other technology. In many episodes it was seen as a space for entertainment, but in some, it was actually a place where they could fake a problem and fix that problem.

That’s what they do inside the lab, and they focus on crew simulation. It’s a safe way to practice from the ground before taking off.

Merkle said that over time, training technology has evolved.

“In the past, we built simulators as a complete replica of the aircraft cockpit and all its ground systems. Today, we can use video game technology and hardware to simulate that experience with a cheaper device,” Merkle said.

She said the Air Force has done simulation training for decades, but it’s not just for pilots. All aircrew undergo some form of simulation training.

“We tend to focus on the cockpit with the pilot and co-pilot, but there are also navigators and weapon system operators who go through this training,” Merkle said.

Cargo handlers and other crew members in the rear of the aircraft who support a mission also undergo training.

Training is divided into four phases, beginning with undergraduate pilot training.

“That’s where you get your wings. You learn to fly. You learn to pilot,” Merkle said.

After the first phase, there is an initial qualification, putting the crews into the planes they will fly. From there, crews will learn the mission performed by their aircraft. Phase four is an annual certification to keep qualifications current.

“As a rule, it is dozens of hours of simulation throughout the career and throughout the different phases of training. It depends on the aircraft though,” Merkle said.

Training behind a computer screen, the simulation saves money without real maintenance of the aircraft and the possibility of preparing for the unexpected.

“There’s the cost of things you don’t want to do on a plane. We don’t want to crush them. We don’t want to test ejection seats unless you have to,” Merkle said. “But you want to have the ability to train these things in a safe environment.”

It allows crews to train for all possible scenarios in complete safety using high-tech video games and digital combat simulators. They are able to integrate the best technology and use it in military environments, following the progress and investments made by the industry.

“There are always opportunities not only in the flight deck, but in many other positions in the Air Force,” Merkle said. “When the first Top Gun movie came out, there was a big increase (in the number of applicants), but the Air Force is still looking for flyers.”

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