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Simulator gives airmen realistic training

1/21/2004 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFPN) -- A new simulator is providing realistic, localized training for 72nd Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers here.

The simulator gives airmen the opportunity to operate in a computer-based environment before they take the helm in the tower.

"Our new controllers customize what they have learned, either at another base or from technical school at Keesler [Air Force Base, Miss.] to the specifics of Tinker Air Force Base," said Senior Master Sgt. Lisa Henry, tower chief controller.

Tinker has bombers, Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, tankers and reconnaissance aircraft calling the base home or here for scheduled depot repair. Add to that transient fighters, trainers and other types of aircraft, and the controllers have become familiar with a lot of different systems.

"We need to be teaching our controllers just like they teach the pilots," said 1st Lt. Patricia Hyland, airfield operations flight commander. "We're talking about flight safety here."

Installing new ATC simulators is ongoing Air Force-wide, but operators at each base are able to load local aircraft, facility and terrain features, phraseology and weather into their system.

"This new state-of-the-art simulator will provide a quantum leap forward in the quality and fidelity of air traffic controller training," said Lt. Col. John Scorsone, 72nd OSS commander. "We will now take our already outstanding controllers to a level of experience that we once only dreamed about."

The actual cost of one simulator like the one here is roughly $1.2 million; however because Air Force Materiel Command purchased them for its bases that have airfield operations, a package price knocked the cost down to about $800,000. The climate-controlled building housing the simulator and an adjoining classroom along with electricity, phone and computer lines cost an additional $100,000.

"This is a small price to pay to give controllers the very best training on their local assigned airfield and airspace," Lieutenant Hyland said.

The simulator features a 270-degree screen which allows a near-image of what is seen from the actual tower cab. High-definition images include shadows beneath wings and rain pattering as it touches ground surfaces. Voice recognition allows the trainees to get immediate feedback when they correspond with the virtual aircrews.

This is a giant leap from when trainers used magnets depicting aircraft on a board, Lieutenant Hyland said.

"Controllers are required to know how to respond to certain events using their checklists and (to maintain) proper coordination with various agencies that need to respond," she said.

Scenarios range from routine to heavy traffic with local and transient aircraft, emergencies, deteriorating weather, radio failure and even wildlife on or around the airfield mixed in.

"The possibilities are endless," Lieutenant Hyland said.

In the simulated environment, trainees learn all the intricacies of the air traffic control tower from turning on airfield lights to communicating weather reports to sequencing airflow. During inflight or ground emergency scenarios they learn to use the primary crash phone to notify other base agencies, including the command post and base operations as well as first-responders like the fire department, clinic and disaster preparedness office.

In this realistic training environment "we can control the traffic intensity and complexity to ensure that trainees are getting the appropriate 'workout,'" Lieutenant Hyland said. "Trainees will be much more confident and competent before talking to live traffic. They will also be able to practice unusual or abnormal scenarios.

"The simulator has an 82-aircraft database, so it not only knows the aircraft and what they look like but it also knows the characteristics of that aircraft," Lieutenant Hyland said. "If an F-15 Eagle comes in on final, it is going to be at a certain speed. It is the same thing with an E-3 Sentry. That teaches the controllers 'OK this is how much time I have; he's really slow on final' so if a vehicle wants to cross the runway he can go ahead and clear it across. If it's a really quick aircraft you'd have to tell him to hold short."

A team of Tinker controllers, led by Staff Sgt. William Botkowski, worked with the contractors who designed the Tinker simulator program. Contractors took hundreds of photographs, both looking out of the tower and on the airfield, to depict specific details. They also recorded aircraft sounds to insert into the scenarios.

"When you hear the sound effects it's pretty realistic," Sergeant Henry said.

The simulator's 15 server-type computers can be programmed to portray the scenarios that controllers work using the Advanced Touch-Based System which replicates three primary positions in the tower.

The local control position is responsible for airborne aircraft, lining them up in order and making sure they land and take off safely. The ground control position takes care of all movement on the airfield from taxiing aircraft to support vehicles in transit. The flight data system position works the phones, passing along information and assisting the others, "sort of like the tower secretary," Sergeant Henry said.

"The rating process [for a controller] takes approximately a year depending on the individual and how well (he or she is) doing," Sergeant Henry said. "Time in the simulator will help immensely."

"Upstairs in the tower things can happen on a dime so you always have to be prepared," Lieutenant Hyland said. "Being down here in a controlled environment, you can make those errors. Being able to play that back and let them see an error versus just talking about it is an enormous benefit."