I’ll never forget when my cousins got the NES classic Top Gun. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing that game, even though I can never remember getting past the refueling part of the first mission—and of course there were all of the equally impossible landing sequences. The four of us would sit around watching each other play, all with the pre-adolescent competitiveness that the film transfers onto its adult characters (“You can be my wingman anytime”). But as silly as the movie was and as campy and dated the video game might be, the fact remains that for some, this was their first step towards a career in aviation—my older cousin later became a Navy pilot himself. And while it’s been demonstrated that video games are helping the military with their recruitment process, it’s also true that digitally driven simulations are revolutionizing the way that the Navy and Air Force train their pilots. I recently talked to an old friend, an Air Force pilot, about what good flight simulators do for pilots these days. My friend flies cargo transports and his job is something similar to what most commercial aviators do. I asked him that since so much of a pilot’s job has been taken over by on-board computers, why would pilots still need training in an advanced flight simulator?
His response was a simple concept: situational awareness. Part of every pilot’s duty, no matter how automated some of that may be, depends on his or her awareness of everything going on in their environment—even if they’re flying a transport that doesn’t require many visuals. And for this, the advanced graphics of flight simulators are irreplaceable. He told me that other types of pilots, helicopter and fighter pilots, have require training that takes them into a wide variety of combat and tactical situations that cargo pilots don’t especially have to worry about, and that especially for these guys, realistic simulations are of the utmost importance. What the advanced graphics of flight simulators do is hone this situational awareness into pilots. To such a degree that he said that the time spent in a simulator gives a trainee experience that previous generations of pilots could only have gotten at the risk and cost of being in the cockpit. What’s more, he said that simulators have become so advanced that many pilots can go directly into service, flying a specific plane, without actually having flown that plane before.
Something that adds to the timeliness of this conversation is that in late June, Lockheed-Martin announced the sale of four of their state-of-the-art F-35 joint strike fighters to Japan, a significant moment because of the new era of aircraft technology this ushers in. And with the stealth fighters costing roughly $200-250 million dollars apiece, it places an emphasis on the need for those piloting these aircraft to be experienced flying them even before they get behind the joystick. For this reason, the plane’s designers have created a “Full Mission Simulator” to train future F-35 pilots.
What these simulators do is place a pilot into a “fully immersive” environment: scale cockpits, fully operational instrument panels and flight controls, and many simulators are even constructed with hydraulic supports (like the roller coaster simulators that were popular in mall in the early 90s) that simulate changes in gravitational pull that a pilot can experience in flight. But the crowing feature of the F-35 FMS and other simulators like it are the sprawling digital displays that recreate the virtual world outside the training cockpit. Clouds, rain, snow—anything that can be seen by the pilot is recreated and even interactive. Recent models are even being fitted with networking capabilities so that pilots can train formation flying from several different places on the globe. Formation flying is an important tactical method of military aviation and can involve combat missions, dangerous take-off or landing environments, and mid-air aircraft refueling, and two pilots in two different locations can train for these situations in real-time. They can see what the other is doing and since the simulations are interactive, the proximity of other aircraft are sometimes even necessary (like with refueling). High-quality graphics of these scenarios is crucial because it gives the trainee priceless familiarity with the visual details.
And while these simulators are a far cry from the 8-bit graphics of my cousins’ old Top Gun NES cartridge, it’s very likely that refueling and landing are just as difficult.