Members of 400 Tactical Helicopter Squadron (THS), based in Borden, Ont., hit the ground running this year, applying their skills and training in a virtual environment on Exercise Winged Warrior (Ex WW).

The exercise, which ran from January 16 to 27, in Petawawa, continues to break new ground as advancements in virtual training evolve to meet the demands of the changing operational tempo of the tactical helicopter community.

This year, more than 46 technicians, software experts and role-players combined their wealth of experience to ensure 65 members from 400 THS were confirmed at a state of high-readiness to deploy on operations anywhere in the world.

Ex WW used the Army’s new Common Collective Training Scenario, and for the first week, members from 400 THS worked alongside the Army on 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group’s exercise Virtual Bear. This Army exercise prepared elements from 2 CMBG for international contingency operations.

“We can learn to do things better and more effectively through exercises like Winged Warrior,” said Colonel Christian Drouin, 1 Wing Commander. “We want to be ready for our next mission, whatever and wherever it may be.”

Ex WW originated as a live-flying, live-fire field exercise, but in 2006 it was transported into a virtual environment. Before it went virtual, executing the exercise meant gathering all of a squadron’s assets including aircraft, personnel, ammunition and supporting ground troops.

In the six years that members of 1 Wing have been trained in a virtual world, it has grown rapidly in scope, capability and fidelity, with the support of the Directorate of Land Synthetic Environments (DLSE) from the Army’s Land Force Doctrine and Training System.

The software training systems simulate a realistic 3D environment that is interactive for multi-users, and it can be customized to achieve specific training objectives. The systems allow commanders at all levels to enhance operational synergy.

There were several significant improvements on the technical side this year, including a new version of the program Virtual Battle Space 2 (VBS 2), allowing users to practice small unit tactics in a larger photo-realistic terrain area with variable environmental conditions. There was also the integration of KnowBook, a program which provides a much higher fidelity representation of the cockpit and flight dynamics of the CH-146 Griffon helicopter.

This year marked the seventh Winged Warrior exercise for Doug Brown, senior integrator and lead technician. Since the hardware needed to create Ex WW is not housed in a permanent facility, there are plenty of surprises, he said.

The next exercise, scheduled for this summer, will use a new version of VBS 2 that promises significant advancements: “I am anticipating enhancements in exercise communications and terrain for the next one,” Brown explained.

In the virtual battle space, pilots and aircrews can practice the most current aviation tactics and procedures and adopt the full functional battle-rhythm of an operational aviation battalion.

Captain Greg Juurlink, a line pilot at 403 Helicopter Operational Training Squadron, has been an augmentee for 400 THS since August, when the training for the road to high readiness began. He was also an augmentee for 408 THS, and deployed to Afghanistan on Roto 8. In 2008, the Ex WW became the pre-mission confirmation for the Canadian Helicopter Force Afghanistan.

The scenarios Juurlink encountered during his first Ex WW in 2009 were eerily similar to later events in Afghanistan. “During the exercise, my crew was exposed to enemy fire, forcing us to retreat to a nearby Forward Operating Base (FOB). As it would happen, on my ninth mission in Afghanistan, my helicopter was the first Griffon ever hit by enemy fire. It happened to be in the same location as on Ex WW. We had to execute an emergency landing in the same FOB we landed in on the exercise.

“It was interesting to look back to see how we handled it on the exercise compared to what we did in real life. It was pretty much the same but I felt very prepared for it when it did happen. Even though it’s a simulator, it feels real. Your adrenaline, heart rate and breathing all climb,” he added.

Drouin is confident in the level of training of 400 THS, and he says that the preservation of lessons learned in Afghanistan is critical.

“We want to make sure we have ways to preserve the experience and knowledge we gained in Afghanistan, both the good and bad,” he said. “This will better prepare us for the next operation we will serve.”

Acting Sub-Lieutenant Noelani Shore and Captain Yvette Grygoryev are public affairs officers with 1 Wing in Kingston.