For visitors to various industry events during the past few years, FlightSafety International has been demonstrating examples of some of the new training technologies it is developing. But for a deeper dive into what the company’s developers are working on, a trip to the FlightSafety Simulation Systems factory in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, revealed more about how aviation training is moving quickly into the future.
At FlightSafety’s Oklahoma factory, the company manufactures flight simulators and training devices for its far-flung network of learning centers and for customers that operate their own training facilities. One example of one of the deployed new training products is the use of virtual reality (VR) for Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engine maintenance at FlightSafety’s Wichita, Kansas, learning center. FlightSafety has also deployed advanced training using augmented and mixed reality (AR and MR) technology, primarily for government customers. The U.S. Navy’s Naval Aviation Training Next–Project Avenger, for example, seeks to reduce training times for new pilots. The program starts pilot trainees in MR trainers, where they can “fly” a simulated T-6B Texan II unit training device (UTD) using real power and flight controls while wearing a Varjo MR headset in preparation for flying the real airplane.
The benefit of MR is that it combines VR with actual cockpit controls and displays so the trainee gains better practice that is more transferable to the real aircraft. These devices are being used for pilot screening, cockpit familiarization, basic flight and emergency procedures, traffic pattern operations, and geographic familiarization.
Adding AR to the mix makes possible operations like flying in formation with other virtual aircraft, without the danger of real formation flying. Other uses include mission rehearsal, practicing aerial refueling, and other mission-related flying tasks.
FlightSafety does offer a dome-type visual system for its military aircraft simulators, and this gives pilots a better-than-360-degree view of the outside world, but dome systems are costly, with large visual displays and projector systems and significant power requirements. MR devices are much less expensive to operate, needing only to plug into an ordinary power strip, and can help shorten the initial training time, according to FlightSafety. This gives operators more flexibility for new pilot training, leaving the high-end dome system for more advanced training.
Flying the UTD
During my visit to FlightSafety’s Broken Arrow facility, I was invited to try out the UTD T-6B simulator, basically, the same unit that is in operation at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas. Once I put on the Varjo headset, I could “see” the outside world from my cockpit, and I was parked at simulated Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Florida, ready to take off.
The view outside, set during the daytime, was clear and sharp, and unlike other simulators, the viewable area didn’t disappear when I turned my head beyond a certain point. Whatever direction I was looking in was where I got to see, and this made the experience highly realistic.
Everyone outside the UTD, including the instructor, can watch what I’m seeing on a repeater monitor. Because I was sitting in a replica cockpit, I had the direct experience of manipulating physical controls, buttons, knobs, and switches. This added even more realism to the simulation, and I could easily feel how training in the UTD would help maximize a new pilot’s knowledge before climbing into the real airplane.
After taking off from Whiting Field, I got familiar with the T-6B’s controls by flying a loop and a roll and just enjoying the experience of flying this sleek, powerful turboprop trainer over simulated Florida. The instructor then generated another T-6B nearby so I scooted over to fly some formation. I have flown formation before, and this was highly realistic, requiring a lot of effort to maintain position, using constant control movements and manipulation of the throttle, all while looking outside at the other airplane. I could easily see how spending time in this device would help prepare pilots for flying the real airplane, much more effectively than the traditional methods such as “chair flying” or even an advanced training device.
KC-46 Tanker Flying
FlightSafety manufactures a full KC-46 (Boeing 767) aerial refueling aircrew weapons systems trainer (WST) at Broken Arrow, and I was able to spend some time trying out both connecting to the tanker and manipulating the boom operator trainer (BOT) controls.
The simulator is a full-motion type with FlightSafety’s latest Vital glass mirror display technology. The simulator BOT station is mounted on a motion base connected to the flight deck simulator so they can both move together to give crews simultaneous experience while training in the WST. In the real KC-46, the BOT is located behind the flight deck. During this demo, we didn’t use the motion base, but it was still highly realistic.
I started the demo flying a KC-46 that needed to take on a load of fuel. Never having been anywhere near aerial refueling operations, this was a unique experience. I was told that the pilots who hook up to a tanker do so relatively quickly, swooping in near the tanker, slowing quickly, then capturing the end of the refueling drogue basket with their aircraft’s probe.
The probe on the KC-46 is above the flight deck, so I would have to slide my KC-46 up underneath the tanker and get close enough so that the drogue would disappear from my view as it hooked up.
Trying to connect to the drogue was hard enough, but getting two gigantic airplanes to fly that close to each other was, in my opinion, the hardest part. Until seeing this in the simulator, I never realized how close you have to fly to connect to a tanker. At the sweet spot, the tanker more than fills the view out of the windshields, and it feels like one small wrong move could lead to disaster. Which it could.
Apparently, this is easier with the motion turned on. I was too chicken to try the “swoop and hook up” method, so I inched my KC-46 slowly forward, trying to match the speed of the tanker while homing in on the drogue. Each time I got close, wake turbulence pushed my airplane aside and I had to try again. My problem was that I was too hesitant about getting up close and personal with the tanker.
Finally, after three anxious efforts to get the probe into the drogue while flying at 275 knots in close formation with the tanker filling my windshields, I managed to connect. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I had to keep flying my airplane while hooked up and I relaxed momentarily and disconnected before my airplane could take on any fuel.
Obviously, this was a short demo flight and some training would have helped. But I did get a good feel for the challenges of aerial refueling and especially how the urgency of needing to fill near-empty tanks can add a significant amount of stress to the situation.
Switching to the BOT, I tried the same operation from the boom operator’s position using the remote vision system. The KC-46 boom operator doesn’t sit back in the tail of the airplane because the view of the boom and the trailing aircraft is all on video displays, not a live outside view through windows. One large display shows the view looking aft at the refueling aircraft while three displays on the top show side views of other aircraft waiting in line or the view of multiple drogues, when so equipped. The operator can select between visual or infrared views on the displays.
There are two hand controls for the boom operator. The right control moves the boom fore and aft and side to side, while the left control moves the drogue forward and back.
The BOT has settings for three levels of aggression, from 1 (easiest) to 3 (which includes turbulence and turning flight). Of course, I started with number 1, and my first job was refueling a KC-46, followed by an F16 then an F22. Making the connections with these aircraft seemed much easier than trying to connect while flying the aircraft. The boom responded precisely to the controls, and probably because the simulated pilots flying the simulated aircraft were good at their jobs, I was able to connect in each case, even at a higher aggression level.
FlightSafety is continuing to expand its use of “immersive” technologies like these, not just for pilots but also for technician training like its VR engine courses. The company is also developing, it said, “3D aircraft walkarounds along with detailed systems demonstrations—within external doors and controls and the cockpit and cabin. This provides value to other users who may not be familiar with the aircraft to experience emergency systems and general operating systems. The goal is to increase the product experience for everyone involved with the aircraft. We believe we should not only be preparing the pilot but all involved; including the maintenance technician, cabin crew, ground crew, and the travelers themselves.”