Marines Make Virtual Training A Reality

Marine 2nd Lt. Charles Webb practices a training flight on a newly implemented virtual reality training device at Training Air Wing (TAW) 4 aboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Corpus Christi, Texas.  (U.S. Navy photo by Anne Owens

The dream of becoming jet pilots was just within their reach.

Self-professed mechanical engineering geeks, Andy and Matteo Occhipinti commissioned as second lieutenants in the Marine Corps in 2013. But by October 2017, the brothers were on the verge of flunking out of the intermediate phase of flight school. Determined to succeed, they built a system that would not only save their careers but would also help their classmates and future students.

Their story is emblematic of perseverance and ingenuity and shows how, in today’s Navy and Marine Corps, junior personnel play a vital role in identifying and addressing a broad range of issues.

“I was amazed,” said Rear Adm. Greg Harris, Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA). “It’s innovation from within Naval Aviation and from within our students. When we start letting students help us understand how they are learning differently, instead of us dictating how we think they’re going to learn, we are better off.”

The Early Years

The roots of the Occhipintis’ success go back more than two decades. With a model F-14 Tomcat jet in hand, 4-year-old Matteo Occhipinti stepped foot on American soil for the first time in 1996, and something about that toy airplane struck a lasting chord. He and his identical twin brother, Andy, had just immigrated from Sicily to Long Island, New York, with their parents.

Here, Webb advances the power control lever. (U.S. Navy photo by Anne Owens)

The Occhipinti family later settled in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Eager to serve the nation, at age 16, the brothers enrolled in the Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program—an accession program for qualified individuals to enlist in the military. After some research, however, they were hooked on the idea of becoming Marine Corps pilots.

Matteo studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago, while Andy studied at Illinois Institute of Technology. After graduating from The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, the Occhipinti brothers reported to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, for introductory flight screening (IFS). IFS is a fast-paced course designed to provide initial flight screening to ensure students are aeronautically adaptable.

After IFS, students advance to aviation preflight indoctrination (API), during which student naval aviators study aerodynamics, weather, aircraft engines and systems, navigation, and flight rules and regulations.

Feeling the part

Webb maintains coordinated flight using the rudder pedals. (U.S. Navy photo by Anne Owens)

It was Friday, but it wasn’t just any Friday. Friday of the last week of API was special. Matteo stepped into his new, sage green flight suit for the first time. Crisp and complete with name patches, putting it on was like a rite of passage. 

“It was the first time we got to feel just a little like military pilots,” Matteo recalled.

Matteo and Andy left Pensacola and reported to NAS Whiting Field, Florida, for primary flight training. There, they took to the air in an orange-and-white-painted Beechcraft T-6B Texan II single-engine turboprop trainer aircraft—an ejection seat-equipped aircraft that requires a G-suit to help circulate blood back to the heart during high gravity force maneuvers in flight. After graduation, the Occhipintis both selected the strike-fighter training pipeline, leading them down the path to fly jets.

They reported for intermediate jet training at NAS Meridian, Mississippi, one of two locations for the strike pipeline. It was their first introduction to the McDonnell Douglas T-45C Goshawk jet trainer aircraft. With the look of a sleek compact fighter jet, the T-45C is just 39 feet in length with a top speed of approximately 645 mph. Matteo and Andy were ready to step up to the next level, but they soon learned their student Navy standardization scores were below the cutoff. At the risk of being dropped from training, they had to make changes.

Together, Matteo and Andy reviewed and categorized more than 600 grade sheet comments, found their shortfalls and concluded they needed to improve their study habits.

Marine Capt. Matteo Occhipinti uses virtual reality goggles, part of a trainer system he and his brother, 2nd Lt. Andy Occhipinti, developed to supplement training.  (Photo courtesy of Andy Occhipinti and Matteo Occhipinti)

Virtually There

Focused and determined, the Occhipintis moved on to advanced jet training. They sought the help of a former student who had used a virtual reality (VR) device to supplement their training.

“There were things that we couldn’t practice without actually flying,” Matteo said. “We wanted to see the sight picture, gain the knowledge, practice what we were going to do in the actual jet and get the repetitions we needed.”

While flight simulators mimic an entire flight, VR training devices focus on either one specific skill area or a group of areas. The problem with the existing flight simulators was they couldn’t accommodate multi-aircraft mission profiles or allow the student a 360-degree field of view. Seeing and communicating with other aircraft that may be directly behind a pilot is a critical part of tactical formation, basic fighter maneuvers known as dogfighting, section engaged maneuvering (SEM), road reconnaissance (RR) and section low-level flight procedures. A VR training device with multi-aircraft link capability could help bridge that sight-picture gap from the ground, giving students experience in a safe environment before flying in a real aircraft.

They set up in the corner of a classroom with two black computer towers on a desk with two monitors positioned in front of them. Beside the desk was an old, five-wheeled office chair. The blue, fabric-covered seat had a rectangle hole cut out at the front, creating a fat, U-shaped seat and making the perfect spot for the joystick or hands-on throttle-and-stick, which was screwed into place. On the floor lay the rudder pedals to assist with coordinated flight around the vertical axis of the virtual aircraft.

The throttle panel was positioned to the left, just as it would be in a T-45C. The VR goggles looked like squared off and blacked out ski goggles with a strap over the top. They housed the display that would transport the viewer into the virtual cockpit. In all, the system cost the brothers approximately $6,000 to build. It was far from perfect, but it didn’t need to be.

While Matteo and Andy built the physical system, they needed some help to get the software to display a more realistic picture of the cockpit and outside scenery. Enter Navy Lt. j.g. Jason Bruno. Another mechanical engineering major, the three immediately hit it off.

“They knew I was really into computer programming,” Bruno said. “It started out with programming the air-to-air TACAN [tactical air navigation system], which shows your distance from each other if you’re linked up with another plane. I just started opening up the files and changing a few things to make them work.”

What started off as a few minor changes led to a complete overhaul of the avionics programming. Bruno also created graphics that mirrored the T-45C cockpit and its heads-up display, switches and lights. Knowing where to read instruments quickly, much like driving a car, can help students remain focused on tasks outside the aircraft.

Their VR device could link up to eight aircraft together at a time and included a tool that tracked aircraft position, air speed, altitude and more. It recorded exactly how maneuvers were executed and identified corrections needed, but most important, it was debriefable.

Being able to chair fly a mission with a VR training device on the ground provided a huge advantage. Not only did it improve the Occhipintis’ scores in the air, but after sharing the device with classmates, all the students’ scores improved by approximately 8.5 percent for SEM and 22 percent for RR flights. The brothers’ device proved so effective the class completed the last phase of training with zero unsatisfactory flights among the group—a rarity.

Executing training flights, known as “student Xs,” with no re-flies means students can learn faster and potentially advance to a higher competency level in the same period of time. It also puts fewer flight hours on the aircraft to achieve the same results. While not the ultimate goal, reduced training hours preserves the life of the aircraft, decreases fuel costs and increases the number of students who can complete flights between scheduled aircraft maintenance intervals.

Boosting Future Readiness

Impressed with the VR device, instructor pilots, along with squadron and wing-level leadership, saw an opportunity for the trio to present their idea to Harris during a scheduled trip to Meridian.

“It was definitely a little bit of backyard engineering,” Harris said. “But when I sat down and flew, the very first thing that I wanted to do was fight BFM [basic fighter maneuvers], and it was fun.”

Making training fun is one of many important considerations, according to Wil Merkel, CNATRA’s simulator requirements officer.

Marine 1st Lt. Andy Occhipinti, left, and Marine Capt. Matteo Occhipinti, right, pose in front of a T-45C Goshawk with their classmate, Navy Lt. j.g. Daniel Ryan, during advanced jet training at Training Air Wing (TAW) 1, NAS Meridian, Miss., in March 2018. (Photo courtesy of Andy Occhipinti and Matteo Occhipinti)

“If someone is interested, enjoys and is learning in an area, they’re going to want to spend more time in that, and they’re going to advance faster,” Merkel said. “We’re talking about a revolution in training. We’re dealing with a young generation of students who, from the age of 1 or 2 years old, have had a tablet or some kind of device in their hand.”

Although VR trainers will never replace real experience, they can help prepare students to maximize their time when they step inside a flight simulator or aircraft.

Acquiring new military gear can be a lengthy process, but Harris said he saw great value in the Occhipintis’ VR trainer and tasked his staff to procure a robust setup that would withstand the rigors of multiple student use.

In April 2018, the Air Force launched the Pilot Training Next (PTN) program, which uses current and emerging technologies to accelerate pilot training. Collaborating with PTN program developers and an Army acquisition program, and considering the Occhipinti brothers’ system, CNATRA staff procured new VR trainer devices within 90 days. Complete with spare parts, tech support and cyber security, etc., each unit cost approximately $20,000, Merkel said.

Now there are four T-45 VR trainer devices available to students at Training Air Wing (TAW) 1 at NAS Meridian; four at TAW-2 at NAS Kingsville, Texas; six T-6 VR trainer devices at TAW-5 at NAS Whiting Field and four at TAW-4 at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. Following Harris’ direction for primary and jet training, CNATRA’s simulator requirements team is working to procure similar VR trainer devices for rotary-wing and multi-engine aircraft platforms; the rotary wing VR trainers are expected to be placed in service in early fiscal 2020.

The Occhipinti brothers continue to excel in their aviation careers. Andy is assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101 in Miramar, California, where he flies the F/A-18C Hornet. Matteo is assigned to VMFAT-501 in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he flies the F-35B Lightning II.

“No one gets through training by themselves,” Matteo said. “If you’re good at certain syllabus events, teach others. The one who struggles but works [hard] will be there to help when you don’t know the answers. Those bonds last a lifetime, and it all starts in flight school.”

Lt. Michelle Tucker is the public affairs officer for Chief of Naval Air Training.