From rear projection to a Cobra cockpit, battle simulation has changed
I have wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember.
As a teenager, I read practically every book written about fighter pilots. I realized
part of my dream when I became a helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam. I experienced
another part in something called a differential maneuvering simulator.
At NASA's Langley Research Center 25 years ago, two 40-foot diameter spherical domes
stood side-by-side in a large enclosure. In the lower center portion of each was a
cockpit. One had an F-4 Phantom II Navy and Air Force fighter-bomber cockpit, the other a
Soviet MiG-19 fighter cockpit.
Research was aimed at determining whether pilots could learn air-to-air combat skills
by using computers. This was long before everything was in a digital database. The
technology consisted of manipulating, televising and projecting images of analog models of
the respective aircraft on the interior surface of the opponents' dome. These were the
same methods used to train the Gemini astronauts to dock with another spacecraft and the
Apollo astronauts to fly the lunar excursion module.
It is no accident that the two aircraft were an F-4 and a MiG-19. At the time, the Navy
had formed its Top Gun school to train F-4 pilots how to win against MiG-19s in air
battles over North Vietnam. Up until that time, the Navy pilots had not been faring well.
In my brief sojourn as a MiG pilot, I was able to shoot down the F-4 simply because the
MiG-19 could turn faster than an F-4. For me to do that took a whole roomful of IBM
mainframes working their little CPUs out. Today, the simulation computers are smaller, the
visual simulations are digital, the fighters more sophisticated. There can be a whole
squadron of them with each virtual aircraft over different parts of the world but
operating as if they were in the same place. But I digress.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the Navy's Manned Flight Simulation
Laboratory at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Among its many simulators, the lab has
developed and produced a Cobra helicopter gunship. The cockpit was real, the controls were
real and the instruments were real. It even smelled real.
One look at the digital panoramic display from rear- and front-screen projectors was
all it took to engage my total suspension of disbelief. The experiences of almost 30 years
ago came back in a rush. Can anyone forget how to ride a bicycle? Fly a chopper?
Apparently not. This thing was alive.
After several false starts, I managed to get the helicopter moving forward and through
translational lift, flew over a building and headed off to the wide world of
extraordinarily detailed digital topography. What a rush.
Today's simulators seek to avoid negative training, which means your response to a
situation should be identical to what would happen in a real-world setting. If you are
familiar with PC flight simulation, know that you can land a Learjet on the deck of the
One trick is to use the thrust reversers just after impact to slow your forward speed.
You can do that by using a function key or clicking on the lower part of the thrust
Assume you want to train people to land a real Learjet on the deck of a carrier. The
last thing you want in that one second window that spells success or disaster is someone
reaching for a nonexistent function key or trying to click a mouse that isn't there.
When I got in the simulator a software engineer said, "Your mission is to fly
around that hill, be lit up by surface-to-air gun control radar and be shot to
Not a completely inviting prospect, but the Navy lab needed to fine-tune the system.
I heard myself mumbling a mantra from a quarter century ago, "SCAS on, force trim
off, coming up." She lifted off slowly to a 3-foot hover, I checked the torque gauge
for hover power, and after scanning the instruments, I commenced a hovering pedal-turn to
"Head for that hill over there, that's where the bad guys are," the engineer
told me. Dutifully, if not enthusiastically, I moved over the sparsely treed terrain
toward the hill.
As the helicopter was about to crest the hill, I received cockpit indications that I
was being painted by a target acquisition radar. Seconds later, the engineer said,
"Do you see them? They're on the other side of that lake, and they're shooting."
There was a red flash and a shudder, aural warning devices went off, power on engine
No. 1 dropped to zero, warning lights lit up, and the copter lost stability augmentation.
These, among a host of other indicators, all signaled the beginning of the end. I did not
like this. Things can be too real.
If there is a wave of the future in aviation training, the folks at the Navy's Manned
Flight Simulator Lab are riding the crest of it. Many lives and dollars will be saved by
the technology being employed and refined there. What's next? The holodeck?
Bob Little, an attorney who has worked for the General Accounting Office and a
Washington law firm, teaches federal contract law.