RAF Shawbury, the home of the United Kingdom’s tri-service Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS), is the first customer to receive a part task gunnery training system from virtual reality company Virtalis.
The gunnery element is an additional upgrade to the existing Helicopter Crew Reality (HCR) system that ab-initio—which means “from the beginning”—crewmen use during their training. The crewman, flying in a virtual world (the Virtalis Activespace immersive display system), can now add gunnery to their range of skills with excellent visual ground definition provided through access to a high definition geographical database. This visual data is supplied to Virtalis by Defence Geographic Center (DGC).
Around 1,000 students pass through RAF Shawbury annually, those going on to fly with the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and British Army—as well as international students. Although the main focus of the DHFS is pilot training, the UK forces have an envied reputation in terms of their high levels of crew resource management (CRM).
The existing Virtalis HCR has been providing virtual training for crewmen learning winch operation skills for several years, but the upgrade brings that system up-to-date with an immersive option that allows front and rear crews to work together in training via the use of a PC cluster. It also provides a night vision goggle (NVG) capability for rear crew together with a simulated hand-held white light that the crewmen can hold and point. The light appears on the virtual ground and as in real-life, becomes brighter and sharper closer to the ground, while fading as the pilot pulls the aircraft up to height. The DHFS uses Bell 412 EP (Griffin) and Eurocopter AS350BB (Squirrel) helicopters, which FB Heliservices maintains. The virtual module is built around a Bell 412 crew space.
“The requirement for aerial gunnery has been long standing and is now being recognized as one of the must-haves in CRM training,” said David Hendon, business development manager for Virtalis. During a VR simulation, the trainer can place targets into the geographical landscape for the gunner to engage. Initially an aiming point will assist the trainee to understand the ballistics of the machine gun being used, with one in three shots a simulated tracer round. The crewman begins to understand leading the target and the correlation between the helicopter’s flight relative to the target’s changing position on the ground. The cross-hair turns green once the gunner is on target.
After familiarization with the system, the aiming point is turned off and the crewman must make adjustments in bringing the weapon on target. When trying out the system for Rotor & Wing, this editor immediately recognized the training area to be the southern approaches to Mount Snowdon in Wales.
Additionally, to increase crew awareness of their actions, the trainer can display a small visual of the helicopter from any angle so that the crewmen can understand what they are doing in relation to the surroundings and especially, what is happening to their under-slung load during winch training.
A second HCR upgrade, minus the gunnery simulator, will be installed at the second Virtalis unit located at the Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU), at RAF Valley in Anglesey, UK within weeks.
Note: The primary role of the DGC is to provide land maps, aeronautical charts, positional information, geo-referenced imagery and digital data in raster, matrix, and vector formats for UK Defence planning, operations and training.