Virtual Becoming Reality: The Next Training Evolution


The way the U.S. Navy trains its pilots and aircrew is changing.

By Jeff Newman

As technology evolves and the nation’s potential adversaries continuously adapt, so too is the Navy, emphasizing a shift toward system-of-systems warfare, whereby multiple platforms combine their capabilities and cooperate to execute complex missions they could not have performed individually.

Accordingly, Naval Aviation has spent the past decade changing the way it trains in order to better prepare for integrated combat, bridging gaps separating the traditional domains of live flight and flight simulation to develop a revolutionary training concept known as Live, Virtual and Constructive, or LVC. Major advances in LVC have come in recent years and will continue in 2016 when the Navy opens two new facilities that will link its various flight simulators across shared networks, allowing air wings to practice tactics in a virtual airspace before heading out to a live range.

“We’re quickly reaching a point where we simply cannot train in the live domain to all the threats that are out there anymore, and we can’t always train live in the system-of-systems type of warfare, where multiple fighter aircraft interact,” said Capt. Craig Dorrans, program manager for Naval Aviation Training Systems (PMA-205).

The growing size of the modern battlespace and costs of live flight training are also chief factors driving the development of LVC training—as potential adversaries improve their own military capabilities, the distance from which the Navy must be able to fire its weapons increases, and as platforms become more sophisticated, they are in turn more expensive to operate.

Initiatives like Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA), which aims to extend the lethal range of carrier strike groups, require a larger training environment than a physical range can provide.

“If you were to look at the NIFC-CA concept of operations, it’s massive, spread across hundreds of miles,” Dorrans said. “We physically can’t fit that tactic on our training range anymore. We’d be flying from Arizona to Canada, and we just can’t train in that type of airspace.”

Not only is distance a challenge, but so is replicating the geography and threats on current ranges.

“These scenarios are growing beyond the physical limitations of the ranges we possess. LVC allows us to train beyond those limitations, because these machines are more and more expensive to operate, but the scenarios can only be practiced using LVC,” said Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cain, aviation aircrew training resource officer in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), Air Warfare Division.

LVC Defined

The term ‘LVC’ means something different to each of the service branches depending on their respective training requirements, but to understand how it applies to Naval Aviation, it’s best to start with each of the three components.

‘Live’ is fairly self-explanatory—training undergone by a real pilot in a real airplane in actual airspace, the way it’s been done since the advent of human aviation.

‘Virtual’ training involves a real person operating simulated systems, such as a flight simulator, or even a desktop flight trainer. Though virtual flight training has existed in some form since the U.S. military purchased six of the original Link flight simulators in 1943 (see “Flight Simulation’s Link to the Past” on below), it has come into its own as a major tool within the past two decades as technology has made it possible to closely replicate the experience and conditions of flight in stationary trainers.

‘Constructive’ is not a distinct training environment like Live or Virtual, but refers to any training that involves computer-driven processes or units. Anyone who has ever played a video game is familiar with constructive entities—they are the other people, machines, animals, aliens or zombies controlled by the computer.

“We’ve used ‘C’ since the very beginning of simulation. Anything that’s not a person controlling it, a computer-generated entity, is constructive,” Dorrans said. “You’re playing Donkey Kong, and you’re going against the gorilla, that gorilla is a constructive entity. There’s no live person that’s controlling it. It’s a computer simulation.”

In a Naval Aviation simulation, constructive entities could be blue, red or white forces—respectively, allies, enemies or neutral units like commercial airliners or cargo ships.

“In the old days, instructors would manually manipulate those targets, put them on courses and speeds,” Dorrans said. “Today, we have semi-automated forces that react to different actions the trainee performs within the virtual environment. In the future, our constructive entities are going to get smarter and smarter and ultimately they’ll probably have artificial intelligence and be fully autonomous.”

“One of the benefits with high-performance computing doing the modeling, is that you can have a really good emulation of a threat or another blue wingman with you, and if you didn’t know any better you wouldn’t know that it wasn’t a real person,” said Amy Markowich, director, Integrated Battlespace Simulation & Test Department at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.

Fidelity Matters

F-35 training system, logistic system ready for operations
Pilots in Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., use full mission simulators as part of their training with F-35 Lightning IIs. The F-35 simulators can also be found at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., where Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 trains. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

In today’s Navy, that realism, or fidelity, is the key component to an effective aviation simulator.

“Ten years ago, we didn’t really care about high-fidelity trainers, because the principal place we trained was live,” Dorrans said. “We didn’t train in virtual environments, and typically our tactics were stove-piped, so high-fidelity simulators weren’t important to us. But we’ve come to understand that we can’t really train to the highest fidelity like we trained before, and are focused on virtual simulations actually providing the best training capability that we have today, so over the past 10 years we’ve been incrementally updating our simulators.”

Dorrans said his office is constantly working to improve their flight simulators in three different aspects—immersion fidelity, systems fidelity and concurrency.

The latter two are relatively simple—systems fidelity is measured by how closely the instruments inside a simulated cockpit resemble and function like those found inside the actual aircraft, while concurrency refers to ensuring that the emulation software within the trainer matches the latest version installed in the aircraft.

On the other hand, immersion fidelity requires “making the world around the airplane feel and look exactly like the world that you’re actually going to see when you fly,” Dorrans said. He compared the state of simulation visuals a decade ago to the grainy picture of an old, tube television.

“In an old simulator with low-fidelity visuals, you would see a target pop up over the horizon, but it was just a blurry dot, and you couldn’t tell which direction it was moving until you started getting closer, which was unrealistic compared to the human eye,” Dorrans said. “Through a number of upgrades, including high-definition graphics, we’ve delivered a high-fidelity visual display so that now at the proper distance away from the aircraft, someone with 20/20 vision can break out which direction the aircraft is going, what its angle of attack is, if it’s heading toward you, and what colors are on it so you know if it’s an enemy or a friend.”

Another aspect of immersion fidelity is aural cueing, or how much the simulation sounds like a real flight.

“When you’re in an airplane and you push the throttle forward, you hear the roar of the engines,” Dorrans said. “If you don’t have good speakers and they aren’t properly placed, I would say it’s low fidelity, and it just doesn’t sound right.”

Dorrans said his office is currently working on an upgrade to the F/A-18 trainer, which includes aural cueing updates and a system that will physically squeeze the pilot during acceleration.

“As you pull the stick back, it will give you the feeling of the onset of Gs,” he explained. “The bladders in the seat will expand and push against you. At the same time, the harness will actually crank down and pull you into the seat, and your G-suit will squeeze your legs, giving you the feeling that you’re pulling Gs, even though you’re not.”

The purpose of the system is to give the pilot a way to gauge their G-force without looking at their G-meter, as they would be able to do in a live aircraft.

“We want them to pull the stick and keep their head out, and just by the feel of the suit, they know if they’re pulling three Gs or four Gs,” Dorrans said.

Incorporating Live, Constructive Scenarios

As most virtual scenarios involve some computerized units, ‘V’ and ‘C’ are almost always paired together, “so we really have Live and VC” as the primary current training domains, Dorrans said. But the Navy is beginning to fly more ‘LC’ scenarios, with either preprogrammed training simulations loaded into the aircraft or constructive targets transmitted on a data link network. For example, a pilot might be flying on his training range when constructive aircraft pop up on his radar screen.

The Navy is in the infancy of implementing LC on fighter aircraft, which can receive constructive targets and render them on its radar to practice beyond-visual-range tactics—a capability first demonstrated in November 2014 and subsequently demonstrated in July and October 2015, said Dale Colangelo, F/A-18 and EA-18G training systems technical program office lead. Future demonstrations are in the planning stages.

Colangelo said the Navy currently spends a significant amount of funds launching ‘organic red air’ with F/A-18s acting as enemy aircraft during live training and test flights. “Replacing those F/A-18s with constructive representations of actual adversary aircraft not only saves money but also provides better training,” he said.

“Not only are you saving flight hours on the aircraft, saving fuel and reducing maintenance costs, but the F/A-18s are limited by the fact that they are F/A-18s, and not actually simulating threat aircraft,” Colangelo said. “With constructive targets that are modeled to fly and behave like our potential adversaries, they’re getting training against representative threat simulations as opposed to other F/A-18s pretending to be the threat.”

Colangelo sees the injection of constructive targets as a “stepping stone” to future methods of LC training, which will require improved technology.

“We’re just starting to get into onboard training from an LC perspective, and we’re getting more sophisticated where we can datalink between a number of aircraft and all share the same simulation,” Dorrans said.

Constructive targets are also becoming crucial to the testing of weapons, allowing Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division engineers to test a missile’s sensors in a virtual environment prior to spending actual ordinance on a live range.

“It’s our practice to make sure the weapons work before we go out and use them. We want to make simulation as much like the real thing as possible,” said John Auborn, LVC architect for the integrated warfighting capability surface weapons/strike mission area. “We’ve been working on ways to connect network-enabled weapons to simulations so the weapon doesn’t know if it’s operating with data coming from a real range or a simulation.”

Training in a live aircraft among constructive units comes with its own limitations—while pilots can see those units on their radar and displays, they won’t when they pick their head up and peer out of the cockpit, making it impractical to use LC to train for dogfights or close-quarters combat.

“It obviously wouldn’t be very effective within visual range because you would look out and see there isn’t anything out there,” Colangelo said.

“You can make aircraft sensors and what a pilot sees on the displays seem real, but you can’t fake what a pilot sees in the sky,” Markowich said. “That’s why it’s nice to have the V part, because you can actually control what the pilot sees in a simulator.”

This makes LC most useful when training to attack enemy targets that lie beyond a pilot’s visual range, an increasingly common scenario in modern warfare.

“How often do you really get that close? The threats are usually very far away,” Markowich said. “That’s why it works out well to emulate those threats, because pilots normally don’t see them with their eyes—they see them on their displays and launch a missile.”

Virtual or constructive aircraft theoretically could be digitally rendered on a pilot’s helmet display—some companies have advertised the ability to do so, Dorrans said. But clouding a pilot’s view with fake entities could prove dangerous while flying a live aircraft.

“The jury is still out on how safe and effective that’s going to be, and I think there’s a comfort factor there,” said John Green, training system-of-systems lead for the Naval Air Systems Command’s Integrated Warfare Capabilities Team. “There’s a reason why there are real limitations on how much you’re able to project into an automobile. We don’t have people watching DVDs while they’re driving.”

Air Wing Training Expands

2016 is a major year for LVC in the Navy, as the service is slated to open two major facilities that will allow entire air wings to more easily and readily practice tactics in virtual airspace.

Right now, Navy pilots can practice mission tactics in simulators within their squadron—for instance, F/A-18 trainers in the same building as each other can connect using a local network, but they can’t communicate with E-2 trainers located elsewhere, Dorrans said.

An aspect of LVC that the Navy is just getting its arms around is distributed training, whereby aircraft and flight simulators from naval bases across the nation or even globe will be able to fly virtual training scenarios together on the same network, Green said. It helps that much of the current generation of Navy pilots grew up with a rudimentary form of distributed training in their living rooms with Xbox or PlayStation.

“Most of our aircrew have grown up doing this, and it’s not new to them,” Green said. They’ve played alongside and against people they don’t even know. So much of this really relates to and leverages some of the commercial technologies that our pilots and aircrew have grown up with and almost kind of expect.”

“In 2015 we developed a prototype Naval Aviation Distributed Training Center (NADTC) at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Training Systems Division in Orlando, and conducted 3 demonstration tests connecting P-3, H-60, E-2D and F-18 simulators. Lessons learned from those experiments will be leveraged when we deliver the Fleet NADTC to NAS Oceana early in 2017,” Dorrans said.

“It’ll happen in 2016,” he said, noting that the F-35’s trainers should join the network by the end of the decade. “We’re going to finish the work we’ve been doing for multiple years, and we’ll be able to connect these different simulators together to fly virtual missions. That’s just part of the evolution.”

Another step in that evolution will also come this year with the opening of the Air Defense Strike Group Facility (ADSGF) at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, already the Navy’s premier air combat training center and home to the famed TOPGUN strike fighter tactics instruction program.

The ADSGF will house simulators for multiple platforms, allowing air wings to brief and virtually practice before heading out to the live range.

“If they get it wrong in the trainer, you hit the pause button on the simulation, have a chalk talk, get back in the trainer, hit reset, and you do it again,” Dorrans said. “When they get it right, then they go out and fly it, and we don’t waste time or gas because we didn’t get it right, because we practiced ahead of time. We just didn’t have that ability before.”

Air wings will practice at the ADSGF until the NADTC comes fully online and makes it possible to train together from simulators in disparate locations.

“Then Fallon will kind of be the polishing exercise, because they’ll be able to do those practice missions from their home base before they even come to Fallon,” Dorrans said.

Plugging in Live Aircraft

Having begun to implement LC training and progressing toward distributed VC, “the next big thing is taking the VC world and connecting it to the LC world,” Dorrans said.

The Navy wants ultimately to rely less on canned or embedded training scenarios replete with preprogrammed constructive units and instead have real pilots flying against each other, Green said.

“There are initiatives to make those constructive elements better, but ultimately we want to be able to limit the number of airplanes that we have to launch and still get meaningful training,” he said. “The last step in this evolution is to take that virtual network and plug it into the live airplane so that its pilot can fly alongside or against people that are in simulators.”

There are a number of ways to wirelessly link live aircraft with simulators, Dorrans said, including via an aircraft’s training pod, the high-bandwidth data link that connects training aircraft back to their ranges. The pods’ principal current use is tracking the position of training aircraft to gauge whether a tactic and virtually fired weapon would have produced a kill.

“Those are essentially just data links down to the ground,” Dorrans said. “We could potentially, if we connect those data links to the aircraft, push constructive entities back up into that airplane. But we’re not there yet.”

Dorrans said there is some debate whether the training pods are the best way to connect live aircraft, with other options including Link 16 or “some yet-to-be-developed data link of the future” that might be needed to transmit the wealth of data required to create realistic LVC training scenarios.

“If you’re executing LVC, and it isn’t real, you’re going to do some negative training, and you don’t want to do that,” Dorrans said. “It’s important that we’re as highly accurate as possible. I don’t know if the aircraft training pods will be able to push the amount of information from the ground to the airplane and vice versa as required, but it’s a possible link.”

Data Security Challenges

The primary roadblock to connecting live aircraft with trainers is not an inability to physically do it—current technology could accomplish the task—but doing so within a secure network that is safe from outside hacking or tampering.

“That’s going to be the hardest aspect of LVC. We’ll figure out the data link and other requirements. We’ll get to where the finish line is, but once we’re there, keeping it protected is the big challenge,” Dorrans said.

PMA-205 is currently developing an upgraded pod, which will provide the capability “so we could then hook up to the bus, and maybe push constructive targets up that way,” Dorrans said.

Already a chief concern across all domains of the Navy, data security takes on outsized importance once networked simulators are linked to live aircraft, Green said.

‘The next way to train’

In discussing the future of LVC, Dorrans envisions a scenario where, instead of throwing up 35 aircraft to act as adversaries in a live training exercise, “I can make 32 of them virtual or constructive entities within an LVC scenario and just fly three live aircraft.”

“It’s the next way to train,” said Capt. John Krouse, training branch head at OPNAV’s Air Warfare Division. “The number of sets and reps we need cannot be done live now because the machines are so expensive to operate. You cannot be doing basic stuff in the actual aircraft. When you get in the aircraft, you’ve got to be ready for the Super Bowl.”

Continuing the football metaphor, Green likened training pilots for emerging threats to training football players to attack adapting defenses.

“When you look at the complexity of the option plays that the NFL is running today, and how they’re reacting in real time to defenses, that’s the kind of training that we’re trying to give our aircrew,” Green said. “Integrated warfare requires that level of smarts and tight integration with each of the individual players, because the lines are becoming very blurred between who’s locating, targeting, tracking and ultimately shooting an adversary. We’re taking the best capabilities of each platform and melding them together. When we look at LVC, we want to make sure that we’re building it to support all integrated warfare, and we believe that if it does that, then we’ve built something that will work for every other mission that we do, whether it’s highly integrated or just a single asset.”

Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor to the Naval Aviation News magazine.

Flight Simulation’s Link to the Past

An original 1942 Link Trainer, nicknamed the “Blue Box” by World War II pilots, as displayed at Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) in Orlando, Fla. (U.S. Navy photo by Brian Roscoe, public affairs officer at NAWCTSD (U.S. Navy photo by Brian Roscoe, public affairs officer at NAWCTSD)

It goes without saying that pilots have trained in live aircraft since the advent of aviation, but it might surprise many to learn that flight simulators have been in use for almost as long.

The first genuine aviation flight trainer is considered to be Edward Link’s “Pilot Maker,” which became operational in 1929. An amateur pilot who received his license in 1927, Link was working as a technician in his father’s piano and organ factory when he began developing his trainer as a ground-based solution to what he considered difficult, dangerous and expensive early flight training.

Using the same vacuum tube technology that powered his father’s automatic pianos and organs, Link’s trainer sat atop three series of pneumatic organ bellows, which would inflate and deflate to cause the trainer to pitch, roll, yaw and vibrate, giving the training pilot the sensation of a bank, climb or dive.

In addition to the main trainer—a wooden box resembling a forward fuselage outfitted with a cockpit and controls that mimicked the motions and sensations of flight—each trainer included an external instructor’s station, comprising a map table, duplicate display of the main flight instruments, and a “crab” marker that moved across the map table, plotting the pilot’s course. Using a microphone, the instructor could communicate with the pilot who was outfitted with headphones.

During World War II, Link’s company produced more than 10,000 simulators that would go on to train a half-million Allied pilots, who nicknamed the trainer the “Blue Box.”

Though it could mimic most of the actions of an aircraft and common conditions like pre-stall buffet, spinning, and overspeed of the retractable undercarriage, the Blue Box was best known for its ability to teach airmen how to navigate and fly “blind”—with its doors closed and opaque canopy shut, the trainer forced pilots to fly using only their cockpit instruments, a crucial skill for Allied pilots who routinely flew at night and in bad weather.

Link’s first customers when he completed his first trainer in 1929 weren’t aviation schools or the military, but amusement parks—it turned out the Pilot Maker made for a fun carnival ride.

His big break followed the 1934 Air Mail scandal, which resulted in delivery of the nation’s airmail being transferred from commercial airliners to the U.S. Army Air Corps. Depression-era budget cuts had limited military flight time to periods of daylight and good weather, so many of the pilots selected to deliver mail were inexperienced flying at night or in low-visibility conditions, resulting in 66 accidents and 13 deaths in only 78 days of operations.

Realizing the importance of using instruments to fly in adverse weather, the Air Corps purchased six of Link’s trainers after he demonstrated their effectiveness by flying to a meeting with Army officials despite foggy conditions the military had deemed “unflyable.”

Five years later, Link’s military trainer, designated ANT-18 (Army Navy Trainer Model 18), was being used in 35 countries. By World War II, it was standard equipment at every flight-training school in the U.S. and Allied nations.

After the war, Link’s advanced gunnery and navigation trainers led to the development of the first jet bomber simulator. Advanced electronics and digital computers eventually resulted in simulators used by U.S. astronauts to train for space flight.—Compiled by Jeff Newman.

 Test & Evaluation community Relies on LVC

In addition to training, Live, Virtual and Constructive (LVC) plays a crucial role in the future of naval flight testing, particularly in maximizing the use of live test flights.

“The hours on the airplane, the pilot’s schedule and the cost to test is so precious that you want to complement live flight and make it as useful as possible,” said Amy Markowich, director, Integrated Battlespace Simulation & Test Department at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. Markowich also serves as DoN’s molding and simulation executive, responsible for fostering use of common LVC simulations, models and tools across engineering, test and training communities.

Markowich said the goal is to find and troubleshoot as many issues as possible during virtual testing prior to any live test flights when problems could prove dangerous and costly.

“You don’t want to find problems in flight. That’s bad,” she said. “It’s just like training—you don’t want to get a guy out there and find a problem in war the first time. He doesn’t want to get his training in theater. Here, you want to find problems early enough that hopefully you can fix them before the aircraft gets deployed, but for sure you don’t want to discover them in operational testing.

“This lets you keep working on things when they’re not quite ready. You don’t want to burn holes in the air or burn gas if the system isn’t fully operational.”

Simulation also allows test engineers to create the weather conditions they need rather than waiting for them to occur naturally.

Markowich noted the degree of overlap between virtual flight testing and training, from the test-and-evaluation simulators at the Naval Air System Command’s Manned Flight Simulator, which served as the prototypes for some of the Navy’s flight trainers, to the Next Generation Threat System (NGTS), which “builds the threat environment and provides the constructive forces that drive a lot of the aircrew threat simulators.”

Though built and maintained by Markowich’s department, which deals mainly in test-and-evaluation systems, the NGTS has obvious use in training scenarios that call for simulated enemy forces and projected battlespace environments and threats, complete with terrain data.

In Markowich’s world, ‘L’ includes testing conducted inside anechoic chambers and the Electromagnetic Environmental Effects (E3) facility, which bombard suspended aircraft with an array of signals to test sensors and other systems in a secure environment free from outside electronic interference.

“You wrap that whole environment around the airplane so it thinks it’s flying. It sees all of the threat signals and its sensors are operating. At the same time, we put the pilot over in the Manned Flight Simulator, so it’s dynamic and we test his reactions and integration with the weapons systems as well. The threats react to him as well so, if he flies one way, he’ll encounter threats he may be able to counter. If he chooses to fly another path, he’ll have to deal with a completely different stressing situation,” Markowich explained. “The important part is that we have a controlled environment with no interference.” —Jeff Newman