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The Navy is developing a video game to train flight deck crews

Lt. Nicholas O'Neill, from Carson City, Nev., signals for the launch of an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27 from the flight deck of the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier and flagship of Carrier Strike Group Five, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate/Released)

In a windowless room on Naval Air Station Oceana, a handful of aviators watched an E2-Hawkeye prepare to catapult off of a simulation of the USS Nimitz.

Cmdr. Christopher “Swanny” Swanson issued commands from his cinder block tower, which instead of surveying an expansive aircraft carrier, looked directly into eight flat screens. From there, he issued his command to simulated sailors to secure their float coats, tools and any other objects.

“If you’re not supposed to be up here, get out of here,” Swanson, the officer in charge of the Landing Signal Officer school, called out.

Gaming already allows us to connect virtually with others to transform ourselves into football players on the gridiron or troops in combat routing out an enemy, so it seems fitting that the carefully crafted chaos of landing and launching aircraft from a flattop would be included.

Students at Oceana training to lead flight deck operations — roles called “Air Boss” and “Mini Boss” in Navy speak — recently got their first look at technology that could someday transform how they prepare for the reality of running one of the world’s most dangerous work places.

Called Flight Deck Crew Refresher Training Expansion Packs, the technology simulates a variety of operations that build on each other to create a virtual training environment. The packs were developed as a collaboration between the Office of Naval Research and the Orlando-based Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division. Two have been at Oceana since late last year; one simulates running the flight deck from an aircraft carrier’s tower. Another simulates the job of a landing signal officer team, which works to safely recover incoming aircraft on the flight deck. A third, located at Lakehurst, N.J., simulates the work of crews that catapult, or launch, the aircraft.

“It’s a trainer for flight deck crew members where they can run as an individual, they can run with just their single team or they can run multi-team training,” said Courtney McNamara, a computer scientist who helped develop the software and leads advanced interactive gaming at the Navy’s Warfare Center Training Systems Division.

Until now, the only place to really train for those tasks was on the job.

“Typically the way this is done in the fleet right now is, you know, crew members are sent to other ships that are on deployment for training which cost the ships money,” McNamara said. “There’s limited berthing, especially for females, to be able to go to other ships and they’re training with people that aren’t their own teams.”

Cmdr. Tom Jillson, an F/A-18 E pilot, was among the first to see a demonstration. Jillson is training to lead tower operations on the USS John C. Stennis and though he’s seen tower operations before, getting a handle on the systems and learning “where to look” is key, he said.

“Exposure really just helps you because otherwise, you’re dropped right into it,” Jillson said. “It’s always going to be a fire hose, but at least there will be a little less water, hopefully, to take on board since you’ve already digested some of the information that it’s going to be thrown at you.”

Though they’re prototypes now, Swanson said he is working to include training on the simulators into the school’s course work later this year. Not only could they be used to train those entering new jobs but also as refreshers while a carrier is undergoing shipyard maintenance or before getting underway. For now, the simulations do not include nighttime scenarios, helicopter operations or mishaps.

“All of the aircraft passes are from actual data from airplanes,” Swanson said.

Simulations for the Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers, which rely on steam-based catapults and older generation arresting gear, which “trap” aircraft using a tailhook, are available. There’s also a package for the newest class, the Norfolk-based USS Gerald R. Ford, which features a tower that’s further back on the flight deck and advanced arresting gear. A simulation of Ford’s electromagnetic aircraft launch system, called EMALs, is also being developed, McNamara said.

McNamara said her goal is to roll out trainers to each fleet concentration area and add simulations of other teams.

“It’s intended to go to the full flight deck eventually,” she said.


© 2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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