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December 29, 2007: Air combat flight simulators continue to get cheaper, and more capable. And it's a big business (over $2 billion a year). Often, the company that makes the aircraft, also makes the simulators. Boeing sells (and often leases) a $35 million F-15E simulator. This one has to provide simulation for both the pilot and the electronics operator in the back. There are actually more companies making simulators, than manufacture the combat aircraft. An example of that is the Link company, which pioneered development of flight simulators 70 years ago. They not only provide the simulators, but also the ancillary items, like a briefing/de-briefing facility, staff (many of whom are retired pilots who flew the aircraft being simulated) and staff to maintain the equipment. One Link facility, costing $40 million, includes four F-18 simulators and the briefing areas.

Because of the rapid advances in PC based graphics, a major cost factor has been brought under control. It's still expensive to use what amounts to an actual fighter cockpit, and link all the controls and displays with the simulator software and graphics system. Most of these simulators are also networked, with fast connections, so that simulator users can "fly" with others anywhere in the world. Yeah, there are sometimes "death matches" as well.

The graphics come in handy once more in the briefing/de-briefing facility, where large flat screens are used for mission planning and briefing, and in the after-action briefing. Here, actual performance can be replayed, from different perspectives, to show pilots what to avoid the problem next time around. Putting the actual aircraft in the air costs several thousand dollars an hour. Much of this is just the cost of fuel. Simulators cost as little as a fifth as much as actually flying the aircraft (depending on how intensively the simulators are used.) But more importantly, you can afford to make mistakes in the simulators, without the risk of losing a $50-100 million aircraft. Even developing nations, which can barely afford the actual warplanes, see a need for simulators to keep their pilots competent.


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