Photo: Russ Carmack/The News Tribune
When my colleague Russ Carmack brought his images back from this morning’s “ride” in Sim No. 11 out at McChord, one of the other photographers commented as to how we must’ve been out there early, given the dawn’s early light out the cockpit window.
For us news types an 8 a.m. showup still counts as oh-dark-thirty. But that’s not why the light looked that way.
The virtual reality world they can create in the C-17 simulators is impressive – after lifting off from a faithful VR version of the McChord flightline, we flew over a VR Tacoma Dome, a VR East Side, and, as you can see, a VR Mount Rainier.
Simulator instructor Bob Callahan and Lou Matz, the facility director from Boeing, explained that in the old days they used a cartoony VR world. But these days it’s high-res satellite imagery, adjusted to bring up the 3D feel.
This is not “Flight Simulator” for your old desktop; McChord’s C-17 sims are RV-sized contraptions on hydraulic lifts that vibrate and rumble. The instructors can summon up weather conditions with Zeus-like authority – rain, snow, hail, lightning, you name it. The horizon dips and bobs and weaves and the sensation of movement hits you in the gut.
Sometimes, people even barf (not us, mind).
Craig Kelshaw, McChord’s simulator project officer, said the quality of the effects has allowed the Air Force to move more and more of its pilot training into the VR world. Figuring in fuel costs and wear and tear on the air frames, it costs $17,900 an hour for training in a C-17, compared with $600 an hour in the simulator, Kelshaw said.
There’s only one significant drawback. The pilots, like the two pictured above – Capt. Chris Robinson, left, and Lt. Col. Ted Detwiler – are professionals. And their natural sense of competition and pride drives them to take the training seriously.
But in the sim, “game over” doesn’t really mean “game over.” There’s not that underlying fear that if you screw up, you’re going to die.
Sim instructors like Callahan say they can put pilots through every worst-case scenario they could ever possibly encounter in a real live airplane. And the laws of gravity notwithstanding, if they can come through all that in the sim, their chances of making the right decisions at real-life crunchtime go way, way up.