Virtual Reality Training
Nov 28, 2017

I am in the left-seat of a CC-130J Super Hercules cockpit, flying over the east end of Ottawa and on approach to Runway 25 at the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. It is a crisp, clear day, and conditions for landing are perfect, with the sole exception being the fact that I had never before been inside of – let alone piloted – an advanced tactical airlifter. I will spare the reader the particular details of the landing – with the sole caveat of keeping in mind the age-old mantra of “any landing you can walk away from....” 

Casey Brunelle piloting Super Herc at the TFTD. (Chris Stellwag).

Satisfied with my effort (despite the prop-driven dust storm still fluttering around the aircraft), I step away from the controls and descend from the darkened cockpit. As real as it seemed, I am not in Ottawa, I am at the foot of a Weapon Systems Trainer simulator that is towering atop hydraulic stilts in the Wing Commander Sedley S. Blanchard Building, a facility at 426 Squadron at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton. 

This was my first practical look at the devices that compose one of the most advanced aircrew training facilities anywhere in the world – an uncertain world that demands rigorous training to meet all threat possibilities.

The contemporary geopolitical arena is one of constantly-evolving threats and vulnerabilities. With the focus of states now spreading to include counterterrorism operations, renewed strategic rivalries with great powers, peacekeeping missions, and humanitarian obligations, the men and women of the world’s leading militaries have never before been confronted with such a diverse range of risks that, within mere hours, might result in full-scale deployments at home and abroad.

CFB Trenton, home of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) 8 Wing, serves as the hub of Canada’s air transport operations – a vast array of fixed-wing tactical and strategic aircraft squadrons, including 426 Transport Training Squadron (the storied “Thunderbirds”) whose operational experience encompasses the Second World War, the Korean War, and humanitarian and transport duties throughout the Cold War. 

Today, 426 Sqn is commanded by LCol Brent Hoddinott and is responsible for training air crews to operate the CC-130 (H/J) Hercules and the CC-150 Polaris. 

Carrying out between 80 and 125 serials of 25 different courses every year, the Training Squadron graduates approximately 420 personnel annually – from pilots and loadmasters to maintenance aircrew and aeromedical personnel. It also serves as the home of the Air Mobility Training Centre (AMTC), one of the most advanced and innovative facilities of its kind anywhere in the world, whose purpose is to utilize state-of-the-art training solutions – including immersive virtual reality and mock-up platforms of the airframes, themselves – to fully qualify RCAF aircrew for any of the demanding roles they might be expected to fulfill at a moment’s notice.

The AMTC, which includes many retired RCAF personnel on its team of simulation and training specialists is headed  by CAE Inc, one of the world’s premier developers and trainers for both military and civilian simulation devices. Founded in 1947 as Canadian Aviation Electronics Ltd, the company took advantage of what its founder, ex-RCAF officer Ken Patrick, called “a war-trained team that was extremely innovative and very technology-intensive.” 

Today, CAE offers simulation training to both the civil and military markets. Its existing simulator maintenance and support programs extend from Comox to Gagetown, fulfilling a number of air and land training and operational requirements. In 2009, the company was the sole recipient of the government’s Operational Training Systems Provider (OSTP) program to comprehensively and innovatively train aircrew in the operation of two of the RCAF’s most modern airframes – the CC-130J Super Hercules tactical airlifter (based at CFB Trenton) and the CH-147 Chinook medium-to-heavy-lift helicopters (based at CFB Petawawa). 

Cost-efficient training
The AMTC at 426 Sqn is one of the two training programs of the OSTP and is four years into a 20-year in-service contract. The technical, logistical, and training requirements are overseen by industry specialists. Composed of high-fidelity virtual reality simulators qualified to Level D (the highest such qualification worldwide) as well as a mock-up, full-scale fuselage trainer, the AMTC has successfully qualified personnel for all of the relevant duties for the new CC-130J aircraft – all without the need for on-the-job-training (OJT) or even the requirement to access operational aircraft.

On 1 November 2017, LCol Hoddinott (CO, 426 Sqn), Joe Armstrong, (VP, CAE Canada), and Mike MacNeil (AMTC Manager, CAE Canada) opened the doors of the facility to a handful of industry journalists. The tour included introductory briefings from each of these three spheres. MacNeil says the in-service element of the OSTP contract intends to “optimize the human science of learning.” It remains very much a living, flexible, and adaptable program whose performance depends on reception from the clients (the RCAF) and the collective experience of the operational service provider (CAE).

Two Level-D certified Weapon System Trainers (WST) and one Tactical Flight Training Device (TFTD) at CFB Trenton. (Photo: Casey Brunelle)

The numbers for the CC-130J “Combat Ready Course” speak for themselves. Sessions for pilots (204 hours) and loadmasters (136 hours) include simulators, computer-based classroom lessons, and the “Tactical Flight Training Device” (TFTD), a static simulator that, from the inside, looks (and feels) identical to the cockpit of the CC-130J. The entire purpose of the program is to eliminate resource-consuming downtime, to streamline and improve training for personnel across all featured platforms, and – most especially, in the words of both the RCAF and CAE – to promote effective, flexible collaboration and open communication between client and contractor. 

The AMTC is comprehensive not just for the depth of its training, but also for the wide breadth of aircrew duties it has the capability to instruct. Students include pilots, maintenance crew, loadmasters, aeromedical techs, and other CAF personnel whose operational performance relates to the CC-130J aircraft. All of the tasks directly and indirectly tied to the operation of these tactical airlifters, from overseeing high-speed, low-level supply drops to any number of simulated malfunctions or instances of enemy fire can be replicated by means of the networks platforms of the AMTC. From night-time conditions to the green lights projected into the fuselage as skids of supplies are unloaded off the ramp and into the beckoning darkness of the hanger – the virtual element of this training is so extensive that, in the words of the one of the senior CAE instructors, the only element of flight that could not currently be represented in the program is air sickness.

The training at the AMTC is capable of being networked between all of its dependant platforms to simulate countless scenarios, challenges, and the reinforcement of theoretical skills into practical knowledge – all of which instrumentally gears RCAF personnel towards mission readiness. 

In terms of cockpit simulations, the AMTC is equipped with two level-D certified Weapon System Trainers and one Tactical Flight Training Device. High-resolution and high-fidelity images are projected into the cockpit viewscreens, so that aircrews can learn and master the unique characteristics at a variety of locations – from the skies and terrain of Ottawa and Comox to Kigali and Kandahar.

The cockpit simulators are coupled with more conventional laptop and desktop-based virtual simulators, on which students begin before moving on to the Integrated Procedures Trainers – classroom-based platforms that simulate the controls and technical requirements of the cockpit outside of an immersive environment. 

Beyond the skills demanded of pilots and loadmasters is the CC-130J Maintenance Training Program, under subcontract to Lockheed Martin. With the same mandate of providing thorough and innovative training to students without the need for OJT or access to operational aircraft, the sub-program develops highly knowledgeable maintenance managers and technicians who are qualified to perform first-line (O-level) maintenance on the CC-130Js immediately upon graduation. All of the skills and knowledge needed to effectively operate these advanced aircraft are available at this one centralized facility.

CAE instructor demonstrates the Integrated Procedures Trainer.

Responding to future risks
Simulating the demanding experience of military aviation has always been at the core of training aviators. Much like military training for any trade – from infantier to artillery to strategic airlift pilot – such training should revolve around two key pillars. First is the knowledge and technical skill required to perform one’s trade to the best possible capability – insight into weapons systems, tactical considerations, manœuvres, and much more. 

The second element, the ability to perform these same tasks under the threat of fatal danger (be it enemy fire or the risks of adverse weather), is more subjective, and vastly more difficult to simulate outside of combat.

LCol Hoddinott raised this point – the second and third-order effects – and how they impact virtual training scenarios. On the surface, both elements of training are tried and tested throughout the entirety of the AMTC’s program. On a deeper and more intersubjective level, LCol Hoddinott spoke of the importance of training and skills-refinement in the practical world, where threats and vulnerabilities consistent with daily aircrew duties simply cannot be simulated, even in this most innovative training environment. Even further, should the knowledge, technical know-how, and the streamlined procedures of the aircrew be perfected in the virtual reality of the AMTC, there becomes the increasingly real possibility that such simulated skills might be extremely difficult to consistently reproduce when under fire in the field. 

From this perspective, one enters the novel field of introducing elements of fear and stress into training, equivalent to “live-fire” exercises common in ground force training or, more theoretically, in utilising a neurological connection to simulate such sensations for the aircrew. Until such technology is readily available (and the ethical implications thoroughly assessed), this immersive training regime developed by a flexible and proactive partnership between client and contractor remains one of the most advanced such programs today. 

The leveraging of best practices from other Canadian training centres, using Canadian technology, and enhancing aircrew readiness by means of highly experienced Veterans makes the service provided at the AMTC efficient, cost-effective, and sought after by many other world-class air forces around the world.

Much of the current discussion on the technological future of military aviation centres on the increasing possibility of automation of the skies – from UAVs piloted from the other side of the world to the prospect of fully autonomous armed drones. A lesser known, but nonetheless essential, dialogue to have, however, is in how computerized and virtual technologies can enhance (or completely revolutionize) the training of conventional aircrew – men and women who are entrusted with the demanding duty of operating advanced airframes in inherently risky operational environments at home and abroad. 

The comprehensiveness and innovation behind CFB Trenton’s Air Mobility Training Centre prepares these aircrews for an increasingly uncertain geopolitical arena in which their skills may be called upon any day to serve anywhere. 

Casey Brunelle is a graduate of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge.