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.