Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Off to the left, in the darkness, the runway lights of N’djili Airport are visible, and beyond that, the black mass of the great Congo River. The C-130J Hercules banks and begins its descent. Looking at the dark, silent scene from the cockpit, it is easy to forget that this is a vital mission, easy to forget the difficulties of a night landing in a potential battle zone. Easiest of all to forget that this is all taking place in a simulator at CFB Trenton.

“Simulation is the way to go.” RCAF Captain Greg Bush is standing in front of two new weapons systems training simulators installed in the Wing Commander Sedley S. Blanchard Building at Canadian Forces Base Trenton. The glossy white simulators perch atop tall, spindly legs that give them the appearance of the Martian machines out of a new version of War of the Worlds. The weapons systems training simulator behind Bush isn’t quite finished yet – the cowling that will fit over its nose sits ready a few feet away on the concrete floor, but off to his right, the second simulator is obviously in use – the pod that the training crew sits in shifts up and down and left to right, mocking the movements of an aircraft in flight.

The air force has long relied on simulators for pilot instruction – right back to the LINK trainers used to familiarize would-be flyers with the subtleties of instrument training in World War II. What they presented was, at best, an approximation of flight. What CAE has created for the air force’s new Air Mobility Training Centre (AMTC), however, nearly erases the difference, helping trainees not only develop basic flying skills but master situations no pilot has yet faced.

In 2009, the government of Canada awarded a contract to CAE as its Operational Training Systems Provider (OTSP) to complement DND’s recent purchases of 17 CC-130J Hercules aircraft and 15 medium-to heavy lift CH-147F Chinook helicopters. Under the OTSP program, CAE was contracted to develop comprehensive training facilities for the CC-130J and CH-147, to be opened in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

The new Trenton facility, which opened September 13, houses the centre for Hercules training. Within the walls of the $40.5 million, 17,000 square-metre facility, aspiring Hercules pilots will be trained to fly and maintain the new CC-130J Hercules using simulators and software developed by CAE and its partner firms as part of their 20-year, $330 million dollar deal with the government. Loadmasters and mechanics will also be trained at the new facility.

Bush characterizes the pilot training process, which typically takes about 25 weeks, as a series of “baby steps.” Initial pilot training takes place in a classroom, where, seated at a triple monitor set-up students learn the basics of the aircraft – “switchology” as Bush calls it – using simulation software developed by CAE. This familiarizes them with the aircraft’s components and proper procedures. From there, aspirant pilots move on to the CAE Simfinity Integrated Procedures Trainer (IPT), a touch-activated simulator, that apes the set-up of the CC-130J’s cockpit. Brush your hand along one of the touch activated screens, and you push the throttles forward, brush another, and you raise the landing gear. Trainees absorb the actual placement of the controls within the aircraft.

The final stages of their time at the AMTC finds the pilots working with the Tactical Flight Training Device (TFTD) before moving onto the aforementioned CC-130J Weapons Systems Training Simulators. A fixed-base, static installation, entering the TFTD feels precisely like stepping into the cockpit of a CC-130J.

“Right now,” says Bush, indicating the view visible through the cockpit windows, “we’ve got this one sitting on the button in Trenton. We’re on the west side facing east and it’s sort of mid-dayish.” The simulation matches, perhaps exceeds, the quality of any high-quality computer game.

The interior of the simulator’s nose, just outside those cockpit windows, is covered in Mylar. Instructors seated at terminals behind the pilot and co-pilot seats in the simulator can project pretty well anything onto this. The Weapons Systems Training Simulators take the illusion even further, moving precisely like a CC-130J in takeoff, flight and landing. “An hour in this,” says Bush, “is equivalent to an hour in flight.”

Simulation on so extensive a level offers the RCAF two advantages. One very simply is cost saving. The cost of an hour aloft training in a Hercules runs to several thousands of dollars. Says Bush: “What you’re going to save in fuel costs, in maintenance costs, in O and M [operations and maneuver] costs, in personnel costs, and in carbon footprint is going to be huge.”

But if the experience is “simulated,” it is not inauthentic – the air force’s current ideal, says Bush, is “train how you fight, fight how you train.” The experience of working on the weapons systems training simulators has been created to exactly mimic the real thing: there will be no disconnect between what you’ve learned and what you need to do.

More, the simulators can take pilots where real-life experience has not – yet. “If the political climate in any country in the world changes, and we don’t normally fly into there? Then probably in three weeks we’ll have their airport. We can practice flying in and out before we actually get there.” New imagery, for example satellite pictures, can be loaded into the simulators’ databases quickly and modified to serve as a teaching tool. If a mission called for a night flight into, to use the above example, Kinshasa, to evacuate civilian casualties, pilots could practice the mission, and get it right, well before their aircraft’s wheels ever left the ground.

The future is networked
“Today, most forces use simulation to prepare their pilots.”

Pietro D’Ulisse, CAE’s vice president and business leader for Canada, is on the phone explaining where the company believes simulation is headed in the next few years.

In terms of the already impressive imagery, says D’Ulisse, “in a year or two you’ll notice differences – you’ll see incremental improvements. The technology will continue to improve.” But that’s not where the profound changes will occur. “Simulation system networking,” says D’Ulisse, “that’s where we’re heading.

Take a mission where the C-130 is escorted by a CF-18s. The ideal will be to network two or more simulators to allow the pilots to train together, whether, as he puts it, “the simulators are next door or 1,000 kilometres apart.” The future can already be glimpsed at Trenton, where the simulators can be networked together in various training scenarios. For example, the CC-130J TFTD can be networked with the fuselage trainer used for training loadmaster crews in another part of the building. This lets trainee pilots and loadmasters learn to work together, just as they would when operating the Hercules on an actual mission.

Ultimately, says D’Ulisse, networking will expand to involve not just two simulators, but many, on land, air and sea – and from different nations.

“Coalition training today with real assets is very expensive,” he says. “As simulation gets better, you can download training from those assets into virtual environments – saving money and saving the real environment, and importantly, better preparing our forces for mission success.”

What CAE has developed for Trenton points ultimately to training exercises involving armed forces worldwide, training together in a simulated battle space. Armed forces that have never worked together before, utlilizing assets that have never been used together before, either.

Better, ultimately, than real.

Ian Coutts is the author of four books, most recently Brew North. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life, Canadian Business, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.