Training for the Joint Strike Fighter
The F35, notoriously, is a single-seat only airplane type. There won’t be a twin-seat trainer variant, and the plan to make the F35 as affordable as possible is to reduce to the minimum possible levels the number of training flying hours to be flown by its crews. Not just that, either, because operational training is to be largely done with simulators, including even the complex art of air to air refueling. The F22, which is also a single-seat only type, does not have simulators powerful enough, at least at the moment, to train for this delicate kind of operation, and its pilots have to fly a bridge-course on F16s. With the F35, the simulator is proving so efficient, that the US armed forces expect to prepare pilots for AAR on simulator.
Pilots are not the only ones who benefit from simulators, either, since there will be a sophisticate Maintenance simulator as well, an Ejection System Maintenance Simulator, and a weapons loading trainer, which will allow ground crew to practice the installation of weaponry onto the plane’s internal bays.
The full cadre of simulators that will allow personnel to prepare for the F35 is to include:
- Full Mission Simulator
- Mission Rehearsal Trainer
- Deployable Mission Rehearsal Trainer
The above are all aimed to prepare and keep current the pilots. In addition, ground crew will be prepared thanks to:
- Aircraft Systems Maintenance Trainer
- Ejection System Maintenance Trainer
- Weapons Loading Trainer
The Full Mission Simulator is an incredibly high-fidelity simulator capable to prepare pilots for flying complex operational scenarios. A complete FMS costs 20 million dollars, according to 2012 US DoD budget figures: the US armed forces have so far ordered a total of 10 FMSs.
The FMS is destined to be used with two distinct rooms, one for Briefing and one for Debriefing, and the system can run in Training mode, from the Briefing room to the actual simulator, while also supporting debriefing for the precedent training sortie.
Key feature of the FMS is the simulator dome, which pushes technology to the current limit, with visual display contractor Rockwell Collins having succeeded in developing and building a totally smooth dome giving 360° degrees all around visibility and simulation of the complete environment around the plane. The FMS has a 2m (6.5ft)-diameter dome surrounded by a frame mounting the 25 liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCoS) projectors.
The FMS delivers the visual quality needed to undertake the simulation of aerial refueling and emergency procedures, particularly enabling the pilot to realistically react to an engine flameout, where one needs as much visibility as possible.
The FMS display will be further enhanced when simulated infrared imagery from the F-35's Distributed Aperture System will be fed into the pilot's helmet. This feature is currently not yet ready, but this is understandable, especially considering that, unfortunately, the Helmet Mounted Display with integrated infrared imagery capability is a source of issues still, with the original contractor having proven unable to meet the requirements, and BAE recently selected to develop an alternative, based on the Striker HMD used on the Typhoon.
The simulation is highly realistic because the F-35 FMS use the real aircraft's Operational Flight Program (OFP), but more than that, it employs all the actual computer models from the aircraft's sensor manufacturers and integrates that data, which means that the pilot flies the simulator just as he’d fly the actual plane, including the “behavior” of the engine, which runs on the very same software present on the F35.
The training simulation is controlled from the Instructor Operating Station, and the simulator can replicate the tactical environment that a pilot and his wingmen would face in combat. The FMSs can be networked to allow pilots to experience flying in a multiship environment against a vast array of air and surface threats. Eventually, FMSs dispensed on bases across the US will be linked, to allow large-scale simulations that will be almost as effective as flying air wars such the huge Red Flag exercises. It might be possible to network the simulators on a multinational basis, as well: UK pilots might train in a simulator based in the UK, flying alongside other F35s, simulated from bases in the US and flown by American personnel.
The Mission Rehearsal Trainer (MRT), is a smaller-scale variant of the FMSs, low cost and simplified. It has not the full-360° dome display, replaced by a narrow vision one. The software, however, is exactly the same.
The Deployable Mission Rehearsal Trainer puts the whole MRT package into a single shipping container ISO which can be deployed on a forward operating base or embarked on an aircraft carrier. It is expected that one will go on the Strike Carrier, in fact. The container includes two cockpits simulators and an Instructor Operating Station controlling the system.
The ASMT will allow maintenance engineers to practice fault-location procedures, replacement of line-items and parts of the plane and other maintenance operations. The ESMT will include a mock-up of the front of the F35, and will allow technicians to train in the removal of the cockpit’s canopy and complete installation/removal procedures of the ejector seat and all related systems.
Finally, the Weapons Loading Trainer will provide ground crews with a functional mock up of the plane, designed to allow them to practice the procedures for loading and unloading weaponry, on both the internal and external hard points.
UK company EDM is heavily involved in the simulators, being under contract to build and provide the ejection-seats and weapons-loading hardware trainers.
Actual flying training will of course remain necessary, but the number of flying hours needed to prepare crews for F35 operations will be slashed and brought down to much smaller levels. The current target is to achieve a 50/50 balance between simulator and flying exercises. Simulator “events”, at least at the beginning, will take more hours than exercise done actually flying the machine, so that effectively the pilots will have more simulator hours than flown hours, training-wise. There will also be an embedded simulation capability in the aircraft itself, and the F-35 is to be compatible with the P5 rangeless air-to-air and air-to-ground combat training system, enabling complex mission simulation when in flight, much as with the latest model of Hawk trainer of the RAF. The full extent of capabilities in this sense is being developed.
The US have been in these years building an integrated training centre (ITC) at Eglin AFB, in Florida, fitting it with 10 full-mission simulators plus six maintenance training devices, classrooms and the training system support centre.
The centre will train pilots for all three variants for US and international customers, including, at least for the first few years, UK pilots. The original plan would have seen the UK pilots go through much of the STOVL training alongside US Marines pilots, with only a country-specific additional course being added in the end of the preparation. It is to be expected that now the main partner will be the US Navy, even though the US Marines are standing up 5 squadrons of F35Cs as well as a larger fleet of Bs. As of October 2011, the USMC actually expects that its squadrons of F35C will start operating, from US Navy carriers, before the F35C squadrons are ready to fly from the amphibious ships, despite the F35B having already had its first period of trials at sea on USS Wasp, while the F35C has yet to see the sea, even if it already completed many launches with C13 steam catapults on land, and recently was launched for the first time by a land-based EMALS catapult.
The UK always planned to eventually stand up a national Integrated Training Centre, and negotiations have been ongoing at least since 2007. It was expected that, by 2014, UK pilots would train for the F35 in the UK, but much has changed in the meanwhile, and the 2014 date is now gone.
A decision on a UK-based ITC will depend on the long-term arrangement chosen for training of the JCA pilots: several nations have already been investigating the sole implementation, on their territory, of a Maintenance Training solution, with the pilots to be instead sent to the US ITC for their course. This solution is seen as considerably cheaper, and the UK might still decide that it represents an advantageous course of action. The US Navy and USMC resources could be exploited, and lighten the financial burden of JCA.
Another issue to be solved before an ITC decision is taken, is that there is not yet a decision on which RAF base is to be the main operating base for JCA. For years, the preferred site was RAF Lossiemouth, which would have been, funnily enough, a return to the past, since Lossie used to be a Fleet Air Arm base, on which the Bucceneers for HMS Ark Royal IV were based. Lossiemouth was considered attractive also because it is close to Rosyth, where the carrier will dock for maintenance. Again, Lossiemouth is “close” to Norway, another F35 customer, with which the UK would like to collaborate.
The basing decisions that have followed the SDSR, with Lossiemouth becoming a Typhoon base, for three squadrons and QRA North service, have however kind of ruled the base out for JCA use. Marham, which is the home of the Tornado and risks being closed when the Tornado GR4 bows out, is becoming the new front-runner for selection as JCA base, with a lobbying initiative, “Make it Marham MK2” already underway. (The first “Make it Marham” was of course about ensuring that, between Marham and Lossiemouth, the second was the loser. The victim, as we know, in the end was actually Leuchars)
A decision on the Main Operating Base (almost certain to also be the only base for the type), should come relatively soon, possibly in the new year, along with some more details on the updated planning assumptions for JCA, about numbers, squadrons to be re-equipped, and dates.