With Warplanes Grounded, Can Flight Simulators Fill Air Force Training Gap? (UPDATED)

By Sandra I. Erwin

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley called it one of the “ill effects” of this year’s budget cuts: One-third of the service’s combat squadrons have stopped flying.

Whether these cutbacks will cripple the Air Force is still unknown. Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Hostage said it will be only a matter of months before grounded pilots lose their proficiency in the absence of flight training. Senior leaders also have sought to not blow the situation out of proportion. “We're still the best Air Force in the world,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said earlier this month.

It is unclear if and when the Air Force will have funds to put all its pilots back into cockpits. Hostage has said some of the training will shift to flight simulators, but pilots tend to look down on simulation-based training as a poor substitute for the real thing.

High-end simulators known as “full motion” can be just as good for training as real airplanes, contends Kenneth L. Ginader, a former flight instructor at the Navy’s “Top Gun” fighter weapons school and now director of business development at Environmental Tectonics Corp., in Southampton, Penn. The company manufactures flight simulators.

Changing the military pilot mindset about flight simulators has been an uphill climb for Ginader. The problem is that many of the simulators that are used for training today do not realistically replicate flying, which turns pilots off, he said. “If you are flying at zero knots and always at one G, it is very much like flying your aircraft parked in a hangar.”

Maintaining G-force tolerance is a key element of combat flight training, and that only can be done in full-motion simulators, said Ginader. “When they don’t get enough flying hours, pilots lose G tolerance.”

Full-motion simulators of advanced aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are costly, with price tags starting at $10 million. Lower end simulators can be useful for specialized learning needs but cannot replicate flight conditions.

The only known way for fighter pilots on the ground to experience the G-forces equal to those in basic fighter maneuvers is in a centrifuge, training experts said. Centrifuges simulate a generic fighter cockpit at "extremely low fidelity and functionality when compared to aircrew training devices," said an Air Force training official who did not want to be quoted by name. "There is no foreseeable technical solution or technology that will allow fighter pilots to experience the types and durations of G-forces in current aircrew training devices," he added. Full-motion trainers, he said, support heavy aircraft such as bombers and transports, as they provide only limited G-force stress. "In the current body of aircraft simulator research, the jury is still out on whether the training motion that systems provide justifies their cost."

When flying a tactical aircraft, there are three primary stresses that affect pilots, Ginader said. One is workload, such as the pilot operating a weapon system, communications and navigation equipment. The second is the environment of the training event, as well as weather conditions and hostile surface and air threats. The third is physical, including sustained G forces or duress. “A pilot needs to manage all three of these stresses during every flight,” he said.

More training takes place in flight simulators today than it did just 10 years ago, he said. In the coming year, up to 50 percent of flight training will occur in simulators. But military buyers tend to target flight simulators or training devices for a singular purpose. In an average pilot school, there are computer-based trainers, weapons systems trainers, cockpit familiarization trainers and full-mission systems.

Non-motion simulators are often “high fidelity in look, feel and functionality, but they do not challenge the pilot at all with physical stress or duress,” he said. “They still operate at zero knots and one G.”

Ginader said the Air Force is not taking advantage of the available technology and continues to buy simulators that do not provide a complete training experience. Full-motion simulators that are updated so they replicate the real aircraft’s technology should be enough to maintain pilots’ combat readiness, he said. “If you do more training in non-motion flight simulators, pilots could develop negative habit patterns,” he said. “They’re doing complex weapons operations but not feeling the motion, and when you get into the airplane, it does not translate.”
Ginader said he fears that, in the absence of adequate simulators, continued reductions in flying hours will lead to significant loss of pilot skills.

Hostage issued orders April 8 to curtail flight training at 16 active-duty fighter and bomber squadrons.Those units would still be able to go to war, but it would not take long for pilots to start losing proficiency and for their skills to atrophy if they are not flying, he said. Since then, five other units have stopped flying. The Air Force cut 203,000 flying hours, or about 20 percent.

ACC spokeswoman Sarah Godfrey said some of those cuts are being reversed as the Air Force shifts funding from other accounts. “Over the past month and a half, through reprogramming and other reprioritization we have been able to buy back the equivalent of four squadrons,” she said in a statement. But cutbacks are still in effect, she added. “We're flying multiple units at ‘basic mission capable’ rather than ‘combat mission ready’ to limit the cost and time of spinning them back up to full readiness,” said Godfrey. “So it's still fair to say we have roughly one-third of our fleet that is not combat ready.”

She noted that the funding that was reprogrammed came from other Air Force programs and “was not money we found that was being wasted on something else.” Air Combat Command, she said, “made a corporate decision to defund something else important that mortgages our future in order to maintain a slightly higher rate of current combat readiness.”

During a news conference this month, Welsh said he expects training disruptions to continue, at least until the Defense Department’s budget is settled. “The Air Force fully understands that America is working through a debt and deficit reduction problem, and we got it, and we're ready to accomplish our part of that solution,” he said. “We just want to get to the bottom line or the new top-line budget.” Until then, pilots’ slipping skills will remain a problem, he said. “Stagnant proficiency will only grow over time if we can't restore some sense of budget normalcy.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this post did not reference the role of centrifuges in providing realistic G-force simulation in pilot training. 

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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