Fly-by-night training

Night vision goggles reduce a pilot's view to a 40-degree arc.

Courtesy of Luke AFB

Air Force simulations help pilots get used to night vision goggles

Flying a fighter jet over Afghanistan at night is dangerous enough. Add the disorientation that night vision goggles can induce, and a simple pilot error can turn lethal.

The Air Force is looking to increase pilot safety through training, incorporating re-creations of what it's like to fly while wearing the cumbersome goggles into flight simulators already in use to train new fighter pilots.

'We've lost several pilots over the last few years who were training in night vision goggles,' said Brad Morrow, major accounts manager for Defense Department sales with SGI. 'Some of the pilots will fly straight into the ground, thinking they're flying level.'

Maj. Jeff Johnson, an F-16 instructor pilot with the 310th Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz., said the risk comes from the goggles' inherent limitations.

Narrowed view

'The big danger to night vision goggles [is] the limited field of view,' Johnson explained.

NVGs, as they're called, change the wearer's view of the world to shades of green and black, and limit sight to a 40-degree arc'eliminating peripheral vision in all directions, above and below as well as to the left and right.

Because the goggles pick up and amplify ambient light from the moon, stars and buildings' lights, pilots wearing NVGs can't look directly at them, or even at their cockpit instruments.

To compensate, flyers have to learn to look under the edge of the NVGs to read their instruments'the way people learn to look over the tops of their reading glasses'and become comfortable switching back and forth between the two very different images their eyes are processing.

Training a fighter pilot is a lengthy and expensive process, said Maj. Jonathan Beasley, program manager of the Networked Training Center at Luke. The basic course, or 'b-course,' lasts six months, with 12 to 14 pilots in each class.

'We'll put through two b-courses per year per squadron,' Beasley said. 'There are five b-course squadrons. ... The sixth is the 310th, Maj. Johnson's squadron. They do all the night vision training ... and other training.'

Beasley, Johnson and others at Luke are redesigning the syllabus for NVG training to make use of sophisticated simulators, which will give pilots a chance to become more comfortable with the limited field of view and practice shifting their eyes from goggle-view to control panel and back.

Using the simulators will cut the risk to inexperienced pilots when they do try night flight with NVGs, but it also will save money by reducing the number of actual flights'jet fuel is expensive.

'That's our challenge right now, trying to integrate the capability of the simulator into the syllabus without actually extending the training period,' Beasley said.

The base is home to three different types of simulators'those for unit and weapons systems training, and the Networked Training Center, which allows an instructor to monitor everything a student pilot sees and does.

'All of [the simulators] are either in the process of [developing], or have developed, some type of NVG simulator,' Beasley said.

The NTC simulator was in-stalled by Lockheed Martin Corp., while SGI and MultiGen-Paradigm Inc. of San Jose, Calif., teamed up to create the NVG simulation to run in the mocked-up cockpit.

MultiGen's software codes 'how a particular texture'concrete, trees, grass'reacts to light,' said SGI's Morrow. 'That is used to feed into the simulation for NVG.'

Shared memory

SGI provides graphics supercomputing capabilities, multiple graphics pipelines that draw from a large shared memory.

'On this particular setup there are 13 pipelines [and] 11 out-the-window displays, which means, as a pilot sits in the cockpit, there are 11 projectors they can look at,' Morrow said.

'The mission at Luke is to train inexperienced pilots,' he added. 'The simulation needs to be flawless'there can't be dropped frames, can't be something that draws the pilot's attention away from what he's trying to do.'

Using the simulator to give novice fighter pilots more experience with NVGs also means they can learn from their mistakes.

'You can do things in a simulator that you can't do in the cockpit,' Morrow said. 'You can push the limits. If you crash, you can just start over.'

Even veteran flyers can use the simulations to practice specific missions. Morrow said pilots coming back from Iraq after the 'shock and awe' bombing campaign talked about the high success rate in hitting targets.

'Some of that was the smart bombs, but some of that was the pilots,' he said. 'They'd say, 'It was like we'd been there before.' '

Experienced flyers such as Johnson are looking at how to incorporate the new technology. 'I don't know how many rides they have to take in the simulator,' he said.

'The way I envision it is not necessarily to take the place of training, but to augment it,' Beasley said. 'Maybe on the first night the students fly in the simulator. ... The experience may be able to be replicated well enough in the simulator that other tactical items can be moved forward.'

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