The 160th Night Stalkers are improving the odds of success through new mission training simulators.
The famed U.S. Army 160th Special Operations Avation Regiment-Airborne, aka the Night Stalkers, are about to complete a hat trick in combat simulation, adding the third helicopter-type simulator to their training and mission rehearsal program.
CAE is scheduled to deliver an A/MH-6 "Little Bird" combat mission simulator early this year to the 160th SOAR(A) headquarters at Ft. Campbell, Ky. under an almost $30 million contract designed to improve the unit's operational capability. The new A/MH-6 Light Assault/Attack Reconfigurable combat mission simulator will be integrated into the 160th's current MH-60K Black Hawk and MH-47E Chinook simulator program to enable the unit to train for and rehearse multi-aircraft combat operations.
In addition, a series of new contracts have also been signed between CAE and the Army's Program Executive Office-Simulation, Training and Instrumentation designed to further enhance the mission rehearsal capabilities of the Regiment. CAE is building new MH-47G and MH-60 Block 1 simulators for the 160th, designing and implementing a new "common environment/common database" standard, and performing multi-million dollar upgrades of the Regiment's existing MH-60 and MH-47 simulators.
The new Little Bird simulator will be used for pilot transitioning into the unit's "unique platform," as well as a mission rehearsal and special mission tasks trainer, according to CW4 Michael Licholat, simulation and mission rehearsal project officer for the 160th. Along with the mission rehearsal role and introducing new pilots into the 160ths unique combat role, the simulators are an invaluable procedural trainer for pilots who have never seen an MH-series aircraft before and are undergoing assessment for the regiment, he said.
Licholat added that the new simulator can be used for accident investigations, development and validation of new tactics, and techniques and procedures, as well as supporting all elements of the Commanders' Aircrew Training Programs.
The 160th's MH helicopters are configured specifically for their operations, including aerial refueling capabilities for both the Black Hawk and Chinook. The MH-6 and AH-6 vary in that the AH-6 is armed with weapon systems to include the GAU-19 .50 cal. machine guns, 7.62mm miniguns, 2.75mm rockets and Hellfire missiles for the attack role. The MH-6 is designed for the light assault role to transport a small squad of infantry into the combat arena.
Key to the new Little Bird simulator is the marriage between a highly developed mission rehearsal visualization system called TOPSCENE and CAE's high-end Medallion-S visual system. Lockheed Martin's Tactical Operational Scene (TOPSCENE) takes imagery from satellites and other sources to create a topographical database that provides key visual cues for mission rehearsal. However, the TOPSCENE system was not capable of producing features such as weather and weapons effects that makes a truly realistic visual environment in a simulator. The 160th asked if CAE could link the TOPSCENE system to its Medallion-S image generator to add maximum realism to the Regiment's mission rehearsals.
Using the TOPSCENE imagery process, CAE created a hybrid system called Medallion S/TDS (TOPSCENE Data Server). This created a 3-D satellite image topographical database with photographic realism.
"TOPSCENE is and always has been optimized for imagery," said David Graham, CAE's director of special operations forces programs. "When you want to do special effects such as military flashes and illumination from parachute flares, all the stuff you see in typical training scenarios, it's very difficult and expensive to add that on to TOPSCENE. That product is really focused on rendering satellite imagery."
The creation of Medallion-S/TDS allowed CAE to put its special effects into the TOPSCENE system to create photographic realism with "high-end effects" such as battlefield illuminations and weapons firings, Graham said.
A key advantage to using the integrated Medallion S/TDS image generation system is that the training scenario can leverage the use of existing geo-specific databases without the duplication of effort to make a dedicated Medallion-S database, Licholat said. Reducing the amount of time used in database production allows the 160th's database programmers to spend more time on expanding coverage of the world to support those elements involved in forward deployment warfighting, he said.
The development of Medallion-S/TDS came about after the initial contract award for CAE to build the Little Bird simulator. This has resulted in a delay in delivering the Little Bird simulator to Ft. Campbell. In the meantime, CAE has been put on contract to upgrade the Regiment's existing MH-47 and MH-60 simulators with the Medallion-S/TDS system. And a research and development contract signed earlier this year requires CAE to design a new standard called the common environment/common database that will further enhance interoperable training and mission rehearsal capabilities. This database will first be implemented on the MH-47G simulator CAE is currently designing for the 160th, which is scheduled for delivery in mid-2006.
The Little Bird simulator was initially scheduled for delivery in mid-2004. However, Licholat said that part of the delay has been associated with production risks that were expected with developing an aerodynamic model "for an aircraft that we never had fully instrumented." The aerodynamic tuning of the device was accomplished by CAE engineers working in close conjunction with engineers from the Army's simulation, training and instrumentation office and pilots from the 160th. He added that tuning the visual display so that it meets the government's acceptance criteria is a lengthy process.
Licholat also noted that if pilots think a training device is flawed, they will not totally accept the benefits it provides for training, even if it is, in fact, flawless. In order to prevent damage to the psychological fidelity of the system, both CAE and the 160th are working to ensure that all technical challenges associated with the display and the aerodynamic model have been resolved prior to the Little Bird simulator being released to the 160th Little Bird community, he said. Field testing is planned for early 2005, with plans for the simulator to be ready for operational training in June.
He added that the A/MH-6 pilots are already anticipating the arrival of the new Little Bird simulator that will allow them to conduct operational area familiarization in any operational zone prior to deployment.
Graham noted that the new Little Bird simulator will allow the 160th pilots to work together as a team. This is based on the original SIMNET (Simulated Networking) concept developed by DARPA in the 1980s using local area networks. "The guys in one simulator will be able to see guys in other simulators," he said. "They can work together as a team against threats. Eventually there will be a wide area network linkage to other SOCOM (Special Operation Command) assets so they can link up with SOCOM simulators at other sites. DOD is widening the network to do distributed mission operations all over the place."
He said that there is an exercise management center used to manage large training exercises. "This will allow (the 160th) to train as it fights. If you will be sending out a four-ship element in a real situation, don't train as a one-ship. The Regiment sends out Chinooks, Black Hawks and Little Birds, so they need distributed simulation--Chinooks, Black Hawks and Little Birds working together in the mission rehearsal."
In November, Rotor & Wing was invited to Tampa to fly the new Little Bird simulator prior to its being dismantled for shipment to Ft. Campbell. The simulator is housed in a 24-ft. "golf ball" dome that provides the pilot with an extreme 240-deg. horizontal and 98-deg. vertical field of view, using an eight channel out-the-window visual system. The idea of a "domed" world for realistic flight training is nothing new--it's been around for decades. However, the CAE Little Bird dome is one of the largest in existence and the extreme field of view provided by the dome takes it to another stage of realism.
The cockpit is an actual cockpit taken from an OH-6 provided by the Army. The instructor sits in a console area outside the simulator, which allows the maximum amount of space required for the instructor operator station. The instructor's console has multiple display screens that allow the instructor to follow, as well as control, all aspects of the flight. It also has full after action review capabilities and record and play-back functions.
Also, a wireless computer system allows an instructor to sit in the co-pilot's seat and control the training scenario with a hand-held Palm Pilot PDA. The scaled-down wireless version of the instructor operator station provides the on-board instructor the ability to control about 80 percent of what is available at the off-board instructor station.
CAE has incorporated into the simulator the 160th's existing Portable Flight Planning System and FalconView systems for planning mission and routes. This allows the unit to use software tools they are already familiar with to plan missions for the simulator.
I was flying with former CW5 Mike Shultz, who had been a Little Bird pilot with the 160th and is now working for CAE. Shultz pointed out that the simulator in Tampa did not yet have the full Medallion-S/TDS system, but was instead using just a native Medallion database without TOPSCENE. So, instead of seeing photographic realism, the imagery was like that found in most standard simulators today, including high--value airline simulators. There were also a few bugs yet to be worked out--such as the image of being about 10 feet off the ground after landing. It was also a little difficult to distinguish some of the topographical features, a fact I discovered when I made a landing on a nice wide road, only to be told after I'd landed that it was actually a river--something I felt Shultz could have advised me about prior to the landing rather than afterwards. Despite this lack of realistic visuals, when Shultz fired rockets and took out a building or enemy vehicle, there was no doubt that a rocket had been fired and that the target had been hit.
And not withstanding the as yet unfinished visuals, the 240 deg. by 98 deg. field-of-view allowed a true perception of the pilot's view from inside the cockpit. The simulator will even have a "doors off" visual capability so that the pilot can look out and down just as he could with the doors off the actual aircraft. This "doors off" feature is also being incorporated into the MH-60 Black Hawk simulator CAE is designing for the 160th.
The visuals also provide realistic night-vision goggle training. When the simulator is delivered to the 160th, the pilots will wear their actual flight helmet and night vision goggles. Shultz had me just hold a hand-held set of goggles up to my eyes to test what the NVG scene looks like. When I did, the world lit up, just as it would in real life, while the instructor in the other seat was still staring out at darkness. Graham said that the possibility of developing an upgrade to provide simulated night vision goggles is being considered. This would allow goggles to be incorporated into the helmets worn in the simulator.
The "golf ball" sits on a hydraulically operated six-degree freedom of motion platform, with a three-degree vibration platform added to give a more realistic feel of flying in a helicopter. And it really does.
The major problem I had with the Little Bird simulator was over-controlling. I've flown every helicopter type in that series, from the OH-6A through the MD500E to the MD530F, all of which have four or five rotor blades. The A/MH-6 has six main rotor blades and a four-bladed tail rotor. And like its predecessors, it is not hydraulically controlled. The download from the six blades creates a tremendous, and totally unexpected, load on both the collective and cyclic. In my defense, the collective did creep upward, which required a large amount of downward pressure while trying to control the cyclic for the appropriate airspeed and altitude. However, Shultz flew the aircraft extremely well and I even got to where we were going more or less where I wanted to go, so I suspect it is just a matter of learning it. Shultz said that the creeping cyclic was written up to be "tweaked" along with the image of being about 10 ft. off the ground after landing.
The 160th pilots will be using the simulators for about five 2-hour periods daily, with the savings over flying the actual aircraft estimated by Special Operations Command as being "in the millions of dollars," according to Licholat. He said that the simulator will really become of value when the pilots can begin using it for their special mission tasks. These pilots tend to get "up close and personal with their objectives," he said. "The ability to depict realistic visual clues that pilots depend on is critical to the successful training proficiency in these special mission tasks."