Warplanes: The Flying Squadron That Never Leaves The Ground

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March 24, 2010: Israel is forming a training squadron that will consist solely of flight simulators. The eight Israeli made simulators, each with a F-16 cockpit and all encompassing video displays, will be used to train groups of pilots in combined combat exercises. In these situations, two of the simulators would be used to represent enemy aircraft. By having all the simulators in one place, communications problems would be eliminated. For several decades now, simulators participated in these joint exercises, even though each simulator would be in a different location. But this could be disrupted if there were problems with the communications link. This could either be (rarely), the link going down. More commonly, the link would slow down the signals, which meant pilots were out of sync, and the illusion of operating in the same air space was degraded. Israel is also moving all its flight simulators to one air base, both to make maintenance easier and to deal with these communications risks. As a small country, putting all the flight simulators in one place does not put a big travel burden on pilots.

The development of flight simulators began in the 1930s. Back then, the simulators were much more primitive, and were used to teach pilots how to fly, and navigate, at night. It was much cheaper, and safer, to do this kind of training on the ground, via a simulator. Even today, the main emphasis with simulators is handling in-flight emergencies. Most missions tend to be rather uneventful most of the time. But many emergencies can crop up, if only rarely, so the pilots have a safe way to practice handling common, and not so common, emergencies.

New technology has made flight simulators a lot more effective. Until a decade ago, a realistic combat flight simulator cost about as much as the aircraft it was simulating. While that did reduce the cost (per "flying" hour) of pilots practicing, it was not enough of a savings to make it practical for less wealthy countries to get these simulators and use them heavily. Thus we had a continuation of the situation where countries could scrape together enough money to buy high performance aircraft, but not enough to pay for all that flight time needed to make their pilots good enough to face the Americans.

The new generation of simulators cost up to a tenth of the price of the aircraft they simulate. Suddenly, countries like China can buy dozens of simulators, and give their pilots enough realistic training to make them a threat in the air (at least to Western pilots). Each of these simulators can be run about 6,000 hours a year. While a hundred hours a year in a simulator isn't a complete replacement for a hundred hours of actual air time, it's close enough if the training scenarios are well thought out. And another 40-50 hours of actual air time a year gives you a competent pilot. Add another few hundred hours using commercial (game store bought) flight simulators (especially when played in groups via a LAN), and you have some deadly pilots. The Chinese have, since the 1990s, stressed the use of PCs as a foundation for cheaper and more powerful simulators. Now they have an opportunity to really cash in on this insight.

The cheaper and more powerful simulator technology has made it possible to build simulators for larger aircraft, with larger crews. The U.S. Navy is using a P-8A (maritime patrol aircraft) full-flight simulator, that can accurately replace flight training in an actual aircraft. For the last few decades, simulators have been increasingly replacing training in the air. Even the U.S. Army is using such simulators to train the crew of transport helicopters.

 

 

 


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