“Razorback Two, this is Razorback One, we are 80 kays from weapon release. Start your run on my order, over.”
“Razorback One, this is Razorback Two. I copy that. We are in position and ready to start our approach on your command, over.”
“Razorback Two, start your run now. Good luck. Out.”
Apart from the faint glow of a dying sun, the red light of the cockpit instruments is the only colour in a black velvet night. The constant throaty roar of the jet engines blocks out any sound of the wind. In the tandem cockpit, the navigator stares intently at the instruments in front of him, checking for the last time that the onboard map matches the target terrain below. I realise the rasping sound of breathing is my own, amplified behind the tight fitting oxygen mask. My gloved hands move across the controls. The movements are second nature - switch on the low light television, check altitude, course and speed, switch on the laser target designator, arm missiles. The navigator’s voice is suddenly loud in my helmet.
“Forty kilometres and closing, watch the course.”
With slight movements the course corrections are made.
“I’ve acquired the target, thirty kilometres … twenty … ten, weapons away.”
From the under wing pylons, two missiles launch and streak past the aircraft nose. As their fiery tails disappear into the night, I pull the plane hard to starboard, hit the throttle and dive for the safety of the hills below. The horizon tilts from horizontal to a crazy angle, the compass copies the same motion, and dials spin wildly as the bomber surges forward in a tight turn and drops in altitude. The whole time, the television camera and laser designator in the aircraft’s belly maintain their deadly stare. In an instant, the TV shows two bright lights on screen as the missiles arrive on target. Within the blink of an eye the screen goes white as the target explodes in a ball of flame. From the left cockpit window, far off in the dark sky, I can see a flash and the rise of a fiery cloud. The target is neutralised and we are already streaking for home along our pre planned exit route.
Suddenly lights are turned on and the night sky disappears. The lanky frame of the senior instructor, clipboard in hand, climbs up to the cockpit.
“Not bad guys, not bad. This time, let’s try an approach from the West. We’ll add a surface to air missile threat on your final approach and, say, what about some low cloud and drizzling rain?” Oh, no - here we go again.
Last month, in the suburb of Dee Why in Sydney, I was privileged to witness a demonstration of the RAAF’s new F-111 flight simulator. Designed to train pilots to carry out strike missions, this simulator provides the RAAF with an ability to rehearse specialised missions from beginning to end, without ever leaving the ground. Built by Wormald, it represents state of the art military simulation using the latest in super-computer hardware, visual display technology and system stimulation techniques.
The simulator is not the full motion kind, in other words it is stationary on a platform. But apart from motion, everything else has been meticulously recreated to provide the pilot and navigator with the most realistic flying experience possible.
Standing on the platform beside the cockpit and knowing that the simulator did not move, I still had to grip a handrail to stop myself falling off the edge. The visual system, driven by its own dedicated supercomputer using eight CPU’s each working at 200MHz and accessing 128 Mb of RAM, draws on 4 Gb of visual data. The system pumps millions of pixels down three parallel “pipes” to a huge curved screen at the front of the simulator. The visuals are so realistic that the mind is completely fooled into believing that the simulator is actually moving. Only the absence of “G” forces holding you in the seat is missing.
The simulator can project images of friendly fighters flying in formation, enemy fighters twisting and turning out of radar lock, a vast range of light and weather conditions by day or night and terrain features of any part of Australia. For this project Wormald created a virtual flying space of almost half a million square kilometres in which to train. Within that space they can switch to all kinds of terrain from mountains to desert, coastline to jungle. But ask them what they are most proud of and they’ll tell you the smoke trails. When a pilot in the simulator fires a Harpoon or air to air missile, they say the smoke trails are just like the real thing.
Apart from the glamour of the visuals, the technology behind the simulation is amazing. Inside the cockpit each instrument must be stimulated by the computer to precisely indicate the physical attitude of the aircraft. In games software we see this on the computer screen, but remember that in this simulation the computer is actually controlling real instruments.
Stop for a moment and consider how a computer might make the magnetic compass point to different headings, or the altimeter reflect the height at which the aircraft is flying, or how it must project a realistic radar image on the scope when no radar exists. Then imagine the computer is simultaneously controlling hundreds of switches, dials, radio settings and much more, and you begin to get a feel for how complex the challenge of building a world class simulator actually is.
But the guys at Wormald have gone one step further. With the power available in modern computers, they were able to link the flight and terrain models so that the linked supercomputers can constantly making calculations as to where the virtual aeroplane is in relation to the virtual environment. For example, if the pilot flies through a valley and his number two is on the other side of the ridge line out of direct sight, the computer realises that in this situation, High Frequency communications between the two would be severely degraded. Consequently, the computer adds static and drop outs to voice communications between the two aircraft. As soon as the computer calculates there is no barrier to line of sight communications between the two aircraft the channels become clear again.
In another example, the computer recognises that if one of the pilots inside the cockpit opens the canopy while the engines are still running, the pilot would expect to hear a louder engine noise than when the cockpit was closed. Consequently the computer increases substantially the engine noise coming from the simulator’s Bose speaker system.
Knowing the advances made in simulation at the low end of the spectrum with programs such as Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, and seeing what is possible at the high end of flight simulation, I am left in no doubt that our Grandchildren will probably fly front line jets at the shopping mall without ever having to enlist.
My thanks to the engineers at Wormald for showing me around their simulator and providing some basic facts about its performance. The team is very proud of its achievements, having never before taken on the task of building a high end simulator. I understand that after several F-111 pilots came down from Amberley to put the simulator through its proving tests, it was all smiles and thumbs up. They can’t wait to get it installed.
(Out of a possible
From the time the F-111 pulls out of its specialised hangar, rolls down the runway and soars into the clouds, the graphics are nothing if not sensational. The designers of this simulation are particularly proud of the built in special effects, particularly the smoke trails from missile firings, which are very realistic. At night the screen is filled with bright shinning stars, including all major southern hemisphere constellations, in the right place and orientation to the horizon, according to the selected time of year. And the sunsets, well you just have to see them to believe it.
What you hear in the cockpit is so close to the real thing you forget you’re on the ground. Both pilots can hear the whine of turbine engine noise throughout the flight.
Engine noises are programmed t o match throttle control - push the throttle forward, up goes the whine of the turbine . The simulation even boosts the engine noise dramatically when it senses one of the pilots opening the cockpit. Inside the cockpit there is full crew communications, full ground communications and voice capability with other simulated aircraft.
Is this for real or is it a game. Make no mistake. When seasoned F-111 pilots get into this simulator they sweat, their hearts pump and they increase the tempo of their actions as if this were the real thing. And why not, after all, you fight as you train - right?
Set aside a large bookshelf for a stack of ring binders each 100cm thick. Be prepared to invest a couple of weeks to read through the technical manual.
Ease of Installation:
Call now and we could probably have it installed in a couple of months, but be sure to make room for the several engineers, technicians, programmers and operators needed to complete the job. If you thought mucking around with your system files was difficult under Windows, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Value for Money:
A bit expensive for you and me but when you think of how much it costs to fly a real F-111, I am assured that the hours spent in this simulator add up to just a fraction of the cost of real time training. In this simulator you can try just about any manouvre you can think of and if it doesn’t work, at least you don’t have to ride a fiery trail to the ground!