Simulators are both cost and time efficient
Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd)
The Indian Air Force (IAF) will soon be the third largest air force behind the US and China. Aircraft have become very expensive with a mid-sized fighter aircraft costing close to USD 100 million. Per hour cost of flying for modern military aircraft is also very high because of high cost of spares that require mandatory replacement linked to flying hours.
Typically, the F-35 per hour operating cost is USD 32,000, F-15E USD 32,000, F-16C USD 22,000 and Rafale USD 18,000. In addition to aircraft flying cost, there is an element of risk both to the aircraft and aircrew. The average cost of flying training therefore grows many folds. A flight simulator is a device that artificially re-creates aircraft flight characteristics and the environment in which it flies, for crew training. It includes very realistic feel of flight controls, aircraft response to control and other inputs, and how the aircraft reacts to external factors such as air density, turbulence, wind shear, cloud, precipitation, etc.
Flight simulation also greatly reduces aircraft design and development time. Flying training undoubtedly draws the greatest advantage from realistic simulation. As a thumb rule, a modern simulator costs around one-fourth that of the aircraft. It can be used repeatedly for nearly 14 hours of training a day at a fractional cost. Modern air forces across the world invest heavily in simulator training. The IAF is finally trying to catch up.
Historical Simulator Evolution
Serious military aviation began as early as World War I. The first problem for pilots was to shoot from a moving platform at a moving target. Ground-based simulators were created to teach the concept of lead-angle. By Thirties, the first Link trainer had come up in the US. Essentially, it was a metal frame with rudimentary pneumatic motion platform that provided yaw and pitch motion cues.
In World War II, 10,000 Link trainers were produced to train half a million pilots. This effectively marked the beginning of simulator flying training. World War II also saw the design of first navigation and bombing simulators to help night missions and train for celestial navigation. In 1954, United Airlines bought four simulators at a cost of USD 3 million to train aircrew for commercial flights.
Types of Simulation Devices
There are simulation devices for most industrial processes and learning various motor skills like driving a vehicle/tank, ship, flying an aircraft, managing an environment like air traffic control, Electronic warfare, missile crew training etc.
However, the greatest dividend is in flying training. The simulation devices can be spread over a huge spectrum of capabilities starting from a basic desktop simulator with a joy stick to a six motion simulator with complex all sensory stimulations. For aviation training, Cockpit Procedures Trainer (CPT) is used to practice basic cockpit procedures, such as processing emergency checklists, and for cockpit familiarisation. Visual cues with a moving ground projected in the front or on a dome brought some more realism.
Simulators which handled like the actual aircraft, giving sensory cues around six-dimensional motions came in next. These were very complex and expensive. However, by using technology and dynamic seats and sound and light inputs it was possible to bring in realism at lesser cost. Simulators were soon used by examiners for part of crew certification. This led to the need to certify simulators by civil and military aviation regulatory/certification authorities.
There are simulators for training all types of missions for fighters, transport aircraft and helicopters. There are combat simulators that are data-linked to other aircraft or simulators to fly multi aircraft missions or engage in combat. There are simulators where the cockpit and software plugs could be changed to provide flexibility to simulate a variety of aircraft at small incremental cost. There are dedicated simulators to expose pilots to disorientation and how to recover. High-G training simulators help visualise effects of High-G and teach how to increase tolerance. One of the largest and most modern simulators is the Vertical Motion Simulator at NASA which can produce very high vertical and lateral motions.
Major Simulator Manufacturers
Civil aviation flight simulator market for airlines and other buyers of full-flight simulators (FFSs) has three major aerospace conglomerates. Level D FFS requirements are an average of 40-50 simulators per year.
In recent years, the market has been dominated by Montreal, Canada-based CAE, which has been selling 20 plus units annually. Lockheed Martin, L-3 Communications and Rockwell Collins are also in the civil flight simulator business. Non-traditional upstart Venyo, a Belgian IT company has just entered.
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