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On deck: navy sailors experience 'virtual' shipboard flight operations.


The Navy until recently introduced junior officers and senior enlisted sailors to the art of launching helicopters from ships in two dramatically different ways. On the East Coast, sailors had to use their imaginations to visualize the process. On the West Coast, sailors had access to a video game-like display, but many of the details were wrong.

A new training simulation immerses them in flight deck operations from the vantage point of an officer in the control tower. Officials say the trainer is a big improvement over what the training squadrons had before.

Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron-2 in Norfolk, Va., used wooden handheld models of aircraft to show control officers and landing signalmen enlisted how to direct safe takeoffs from flight decks. Its sister squadron in San Diego taught the process in a mockup control tower using an obsolete digital trainer. The simulation featured robotic flight deck crew avatars that employed inaccurately modeled hand signals to launch an outdated helicopter.

Tired of the "negative" training imparted by its old simulator, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron-3 in San Diego requested help. Officials reached out to the Office of Naval Research's TechSolutions program for a rapid fix.

The ONR team tapped Lockheed Martin Corp. to develop new software for the trainer. The company previously had built the Marine Corps' immersive infantry trainer housed in a former tomato packing plant at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The simulation blends a virtual environment into actual Hollywood-style sets of home interiors and marketplaces where small units conduct pre-deployment training. Lockheed engineers reused portions of that simulation code to develop the helicopter control officer tower trainer in three months for approximately $300,000, officials said.

"The training has as much fidelity as it requires for the type of training it is," said Master Chief Petty Officer Stephen C. French Jr., who manages the TechSolutions program.

The simulation is meant to function as the culminating event to a two-day course that covers topics such as helicopter air dynamics and air traffic control. Sailors proceed step by step through the simulation, which is often their first exposure to flight deck operations.

"They're not certified to do this job when they're done with this," said French. "They just know what they're supposed to do and how they're supposed to do it." The bulk of the training occurs when the sailors step aboard a ship. But they need to familiarize themselves with the job before arrival, he added. That's where the trainer comes in.

After completing the instructional course, two students at a time walk into a mock-up tower modeled after a typical helicopter control office aboard a ship. They sit in chairs before a bank of communications circuits and light switches. Outside the window, they see simulated flight deck operations aboard the ship class to which they will graduate.


"They're getting an accurate field of view from the tower" of a fully replicated flight deck, said Lt. Geoff Anderson, who was the HCO/LSE curriculum model manager at HSC-3 at the time. Lockheed Martin engineers modeled the decks of several ship classes, including cruisers, destroyers, dry cargo/ammunition ships and the littoral combat ship.

Inside the office, the phones, announcing circuits and light switch dimmers function as they would on deck to allow HCOs to communicate with the helicopter pilots, the flight deck officers and the ship's bridge. The simulation itself has no sound or noise. The interactive communications training is provided by the simulator-operator, an enlisted instructor who role-plays each of the parties.

"Depending on how creative they are--a lot of them are great--they would go so far as to use different voices," said Anderson. "Students are picking up these different phones and communications circuits, and even though they're talking to the same person, it can be made to be realistic."

The HCO instructor in the tower assigns students missions to launch a helicopter with passengers and cargo over to another ship. Students then follow a checklist to run through all the proper procedures. Based upon the students' decisions, the simulator-operator directs the visual display. If students forget to conduct a critical check, the consequences of their actions play out onscreen in a catastrophic event.

"We want them to learn through the mistakes they make," said Anderson, who served as an HCO aboard several ships in Guam.

It typically takes the students two hours to direct a helicopter to takeoff. Experienced HCOs in the fleet generally accomplish the task in 30 minutes, he said.

Approximately 100 students have completed the simulation since it went active in March. Anderson, an MH-60S instructor pilot for the squadron, recently ran into a former student aboard the USS Treble during a training flight. Now a qualified HCO, he told Anderson that the simulation is "very accurate" and depicts what he is seeing in the real world. "It really prepared him for the kind of operations he was going to see," Anderson told National Defense.

The simulation has been well received by the squadron because of the accuracy of the models, he added. Instructors no longer have to waste time explaining and correcting what used to be the poorly modeled environment and procedures. They can focus instead on talking about actual fleet operations with the students.

"What they see is what they get, and they can take it to heart and they can trust it, which is big, as opposed to the old days, when they walked away from this not really believing what they were seeing--and they had every right to," he added.

Even the instructors are impressed by the realism captured in the virtual out-the-window display. Anderson marvels at how quickly the squadron was able to put its hands on the simulation.

Lockheed Martin's project engineer, Peter Wierzbinski, credits the timely turnaround to the coordination that took place between his team and the Navy instructors at HSC-3. They held weekly teleconferences for three months. Sailors from the squadron even flew out to a ship to video record flight deck operations so that the animators could model the shipboard environment and capture crew motions accurately.

In other projects, the development process typically takes longer because the team releases an initial version of the software and then incorporates customer feedback into a second version, Wierzbinski explained.

The TechSolutions program aims to deploy prototype systems to warfighters within 12 months of the request, said French.

The team averages about 12 projects a year and ends up funding 25 to 30 percent of the requests that come in, program officials said. Sailors and marines submit their needs online and the three-person team vets those requests from a technical standpoint. If accepted, proposals for prototypes come in. The team reviews them and removes the price tags so that operators can choose what they believe is the best solution. "If they decide that the expensive proposal is the right one, and it's technically sound, that may be the one we go with," French said.

RELATED ARTICLE: Software used to measure value of simulations.

The Defense Department is seeking better ways to determine whether expensive virtual training exercises are worth the investment.

The Air Force Research Laboratory in Mesa, Ariz., is examining hew to increase the effectiveness 0f the Air Force's virtual flags. Those are training events in which airmen flying in simulators at their home bases are linked into a networked environment where additional friendly and enemy forces are generated by computers to battle in a simulated war. Tracking performance data in these exercises is a difficult and time-consuming process because of the sheer number of players and the variety and vintages of simulations involved, experts say.

In support of the lab's research, a Woburn, Mass.-based company called Aptima is developing software that will be integrated with existing simulation assessment tools and pull in information from multiple sources, including simulator data, notes from observer-controllers who are monitoring the trainees and feedback from the trainees themselves.

"No one source of data can provide the full story," says Mike Paley, executive vice president. "We're trying to take all the existing data that's out there and integrate them."

STASH--the system for tracking, assessing and standardizing human performance--combines, converts and interprets the raw data streams from all of the participants and displays the information on a "dashboard" view.

In a car dashboard, the driver sees information about the vehicle's performance. In the STASH, exercise officials will see information on different training objectives, such as communications coordination and weapons engagement.

The information will offer instructors an integrated picture of individual and team performance in such exercises, officials say.

For example, in a virtual training event in which four friendly fighters have to engage six enemy fighters in air-to-air combat, much of the training lies not in whether the enemy fighters were shot down, but whether the internal communications among the flight lead, the wingmen and the airborne warning and control aircraft crew was adequate, says Paley. Attaining that information can give trainers and the exercise designers a good idea of how well the training is going and what needs to be addressed in the future.

Aptima has received a phase II small business innovation research contract from the Air Force lab to continue developing the product.

"The innovation is the integration," says Paley.

Parts of the tool have been employed at the research lab and at the combined air operations center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., which participates in virtual flag exercises run out of Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The company also is looking to make its tools compliant with the Navy's aviation simulation master plan program, which is aiming to improve distributed mission training by standardizing tools and simulations. Aptima wants to be able to link into the system to pull data into STASH beginning with the Navy's submarine-hunting aircraft replacement program, the P-8 Poseidon multi-mission aircraft being built by Boeing.

Paley says the goal is to have STASH ready for implementation by next fall. It will deploy on a four-ship flight simulator at AFRL Mesa and eventually will migrate to the combined air operations center at Nellis.

"We're all pretty excited about this particular project because we know this is what ultimately needs to happen to get broader use and application for these tools," says Paley.--Grace V. Jean

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Title Annotation:Training & Simulation
Comment:On deck: navy sailors experience 'virtual' shipboard flight operations.(Training & Simulation)
Author:Jean, Grace V.
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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