The F-16 fighter, a longtime and respected air warrior, is trim and ready. Good training is keeping it that way.
By William L. Miller
In 1976, Air Force Technical Sergeant Joe Kurdell, a shop supervisor, devised the phrase “Fighting Falcon,” inspired by the Air Force Academy mascot. Those two words won the Air Force’s “Name the Plane” contest for the new F-16 air combat fighter. For his creativity, Kurdell got a free dinner at the NCO mess. The United States and the free world got a fighter plane that has been the very image of air power for almost three decades.
Units of the Air Force, the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve currently fly the F-16. It is also the fighter of choice in about 24 countries, and more than 4,000 of the aircraft have been delivered worldwide. Technical updates are ongoing in a well-coordinated Air Force program supported by multiple companies.
Equally important to maintaining the F-16 in top fighting form are the various .
F-16 training systems, now relying almost entirely on high-tech simulation to keep pilots’ and maintenance crews’ skills finely tuned and ready to meet the demands of a new age of missions. To do those upgrades and maintain the fighting efficiency of this proven warplane, industry continues to support the F-16 effort through an ongoing series of block upgrades and technology improvements.
Military Training Technology talked with a sampling of F-16 training device contractors in various product areas to get their views on keeping the F-16 and its pilots in top fighting form.
Trainers: A Changing Flight Plan
Some F-16 trainer updates today are made through the Aircrew Training Device (ATD) Program, part of the Air Force’s Training System Acquisition II Program, initiated in 2001. A significant amount of F-16 training is done through a series of mission training centers (MTCs), primarily focused on unit and distributed, or networked, training. Lockheed Martin is the lead for the U.S. Air Force’s F-16 Mission Training Centers (MTC). Three F-16 MTC pilot training systems are in use. A four-cockpit MTC is supporting training at Shaw Air Force Base, SC; a two-cockpit MTC is operational at Mountain Home Air Force Base, ID; and the second four-cockpit networked pilot training system is at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. The center at Misawa Air Force Base, Japan, will be operational the second quarter of 2005.
Link Simulation and Training Division has also long played a role in providing trainers for the F-16. There are 82 Link F-16 flight trainers in the field today, a combination of legacy systems—weapons systems trainers and unit training devices—supplied by Link, its predecessors and other companies.
The company has upgraded, through PC re-hosting and new PC-based image generators, several WSTs and has also re-hosted a number of the UTDs with PCs. Link also supports 89 of its existing F-16 legacy maintenance trainers and a few other maintenance systems originally from other suppliers. Upgrades are ongoing with these trainers as well.
Paul Hill, ATD training manager, said, “Today’s trainer environment continues to merge high-fidelity, aircraft-like cockpits in the existing WSTs with COTS technologies. Legacy computer systems, instructor-operator systems and visual systems have all been replaced through re-hosting updates. The results have been reduced costs and higher functionalities using PC-based image generation.”
The most significant F-16 training change in the last five years, from Link’s perspective, has been inserting as much COTS technology as possible. Howard Hein, director of Air Force Programs at Link, noted, “The UTD was a milestone in representing the first insertions of COTS computers into the flight simulators. It dramatically cut the costs of using actual aircraft hardware in a ground-based trainer.” Hein is particularly focused on Link’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) activity and directs international programs for the company.
“Leveraging technology from the gaming and consumer markets allows us to use rack-mounted PCs in our simulators as we re-host F-16 legacy systems,” added Hein, “and it allows us to expand simulator capability.”
Link believes that distributed mission training, involving dissimilar air and ground platforms, is the next major step. In addition, van-deployable trainers are envisioned for bringing F-16 training to the field, using detailed graphics and a training database equivalent to what is available at stateside installations. Use of PC technology enabled the Air Force to rapidly expand its training visual display systems. The Air Force and Air National Guard have purchased more than a dozen of Link’s SimuSphere systems. “This will be the first time that the front-line training squadrons will have visual displays providing a 360-degree field of view,” Hill said.
Link has recently been adapting an enhanced night vision goggle (NVG) training capability to the F-16 system. The company plans to field its NVG suite in 33 simulators in 2005, under the ATD program. Under that same concept, Link is moving toward a full field-of-view, out-the-window visual system in an advanced helmet mounted display (AHMD). Capable of high resolution and using, according to the company, revolutionary optics and illumination design, the AHMD attaches to a user’s helmet. The AHMD will be ready for delivery later this year.
Image Generators: Virtual Reality in a Box
Steve Detro, a former F-16 pilot, knows firsthand the depth of reality needed to train 21st century aircrews. You do it with 21st century products, such as super computers that provide an amazing level of virtual reality. “Today’s pilots demand it,” he said. “Military customers see this level of reality as vital to a pilot’s mission rehearsal and mission preparation.”
Before the entry of the super computer, Detro recalled simulator pilot training in the 1980s and the early 1990s as “a dark cockpit with a very limited or sometimes nonexistent out-the-window virtual environment.” The advent of the MTC approach in 1997, which included the distributed mission concept, made the need for more computing power apparent.
Now the director of business development for DoD programs at Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), Detro is directly involved with everything his company does for the F-16 program.
Beginning in 1999, SGI’s primary offering to the F-16 program became a series of sophisticated image generators, notably the SGI Onyx line of graphics supercomputers. According to information available from the company, nearly all computers that drive the F-16 simulators are supplied by SGI. “The Onyx provides the highest fidelity photo-based, geo-specific imagery database of any simulator available,” Detro said, noting that SGI has, to date, fielded image generators in support of all Lockheed Martin’s F-16 MTC training systems.
The war in Iraq has raised awareness of night missions, and what was once a training deficiency is being corrected. The original MTC concept, Detro said, allowed for NVG capability, but night missions were not frequent in the years leading to the first Gulf War, and this aspect of training was unfunded.
“Pilots had to learn to use NVG in actual flight,” he said, “and had to become accustomed to the lack of peripheral vision and to the reduction in depth perception they caused.
“Flying at 500 mph, the disorientation to pilots wearing NVG was a problem, and fatal training accidents made it clear that NVG was needed inside the F-16 simulator,” he added.
NVG capability is increasingly coming into focus, and several other companies are working on developing products. Lockheed Martin recently announced the addition of a night vision goggle capability to be placed in all MTCs.
According to Detro, SGI took initiatives to help get congressional funding for the NVG capability. Nearly $23 million was awarded to SGI in 2003 to fund a prototype development effort and 14 production systems. “The NVG hardware, added to the basic Onyx supercomputer, provides a much safer environment in which to train young pilots in the F-16 as well as in other aircraft,” Detro said. The first of these systems are scheduled for the field early this year.
IG Solutions: Staying on Target
In battle, hitting the target is everything. Training devices in that area come from Quantum3D Inc., which specializes in supplying real-time visual computing technologies for training and simulation.
Ross Smith, president and founder of Quantum3D, talked about his company’s association with the F-16 training program. “We’ve been involved with the program for about four years and have principally supplied target and weapons systems image generation [IG] platforms to prime contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing who, in turn, have provided end items to the program,” he said. Smith also noted Quantum3D is providing target projection systems to Boeing and systems for missile, weapon and target acquisition capabilities to Lockheed Martin.
“The F-16 efforts fall into our visual simulation and training market area, where we sell IG solutions, such as Independence; IG platforms, such as AAlchemy and Obsidian; and sensor simulation solutions, like nVSensor and Quest,” Smith said “We don’t see much embedded training happening in USAF programs yet.” “We may start to see some embedded or appended training applications for weapons systems and heads-down systems before too long, however.”
Quantum3D is also providing IGs for a number of overseas F-16 trainers. “With the planned enhancements for F-16 training, we expect to be in the running to provide out-the-window sensor and radar IG capabilities, along with real-time 3-D models, and visible and sensor databases too. With our success of F-22 and F-35 air combat simulators with Lockheed Martin, coupled with our success on F-15 MTC with Boeing, I think we’ll be well positioned,” he said.
Asked where he believes simulation training for pilots is making its greatest contribution today, Smith said weapons system training seems to be important to pilots deployed overseas. “We’ve seen a lot of ‘gee whiz’ films that show good correlation between high-fidelity weapons system training and better efficiency in the field, with reduced fratricide.”
Smith is certain you can learn a lot about systems from the pilots who fly them. “I was at the Reno Air Races earlier this year and met an F-16 pilot who had a chance to fly one of our new IGs and geo-specific databases at Lockheed,” Smith recalled. “He asked when the squadrons would be getting that capability. I told him that if it was up to me, they would get them next week … but he should probably write his congressman!”
Mission Recorders: Improving Instant Replay
Mission recorders—the electronic boxes that receive and preserve vital elements of the mission, such as position, weapons delivery and sensor outputs—have also grown steadily in capability and recording power.
Douglas Steele is the debriefing product manager for TEAC Aerospace Technologies Inc.,, a company formed in March 2004 from TEAC America. Mission recorders form a main thrust in the company’s product line.
TEAC mission recorders have been part of the F-16 training program since its inception, said Steele. From the single video channel recorder, the V-1000AB-R model, the F-16 has moved upward two generations to Hi-8 mm multiple video channel recorder systems, including the TEAC V-83AB-F SI model.
Now, F-16 users are transitioning to the new generation of digital mission data recorders. “This means higher resolution over three channels—one for the HUD [heads-up display] and two for the MFD [multi-function display], which might record air-to-air radar or FLIR video, for example,” he said. “It also means recording the aircraft 1553 mux bus data and other mission data, all increasing the benefits of post-mission debriefing.
“For the F-16, we’re transitioning from pure video recording of the pilot’s heads-up displays and multi-function displays,” Steele continued. “Now we’re moving toward recording all vital aircraft data that can be used to reconstruct the flight—latitude, longitude, heading, air speed, altitude and so on. The recorder preserves the mission the way it happened, not the way the pilot remembers it.”
In addition to digital recorders for the F-16 community, the company provides mission data debrief software and a digital debrief station, a ruggedized hardware product. “The digital realm opens a new world of training,” Steele said, “and it’s an exciting area to be in.”
According to Steele, pilot feedback on the TEAC mission recorders used in various airframes is positive. The company anticipates a steady output of recorders in 2005 to meet Air Force needs as well as to satisfy flight and training requirements of foreign military markets.
Communications: Sounding out the Future
Advanced Simulation Technology Inc. (ASTi) is involved with both updating of F-16 legacy trainers as well as new F-16 training suites deployed widely for Air Force use. ASTi’s thrust is toward the future in sound systems—assessing what will be needed to train and fly the missions of tomorrow.
Founded in 1989, ASTi delivered its first product for the F-16 UTD program in 1994. The company’s support has focused on digital audio communications subsystems provided to various simulator manufacturers. “These subsystems simulate the mission radio communications environment,” said Jeff Mowery, project engineering director at ASTi. “Our systems can also provide intercom and instructor communications capability and simulate the sounds of flight, such as helicopter rotors and engine noise. Our tools allow the F-16 trainers to realistically simulate the communications and audio environment.”
The core of ASTi’s communications product is the DACS—Digital Audio Communications System, which has been marketed within industry and the military for many years. “Over time, as the demand for communications fidelity increased,” Mowery explained, “radio simulation became a key element of the product, and more detailed features were added. These included frequency hopping—i.e., anti-jamming modeling, cryptographic data link and propagation modeling. Availability and cost effectiveness of commercial technology helped facilitate this,” he added.
Better communications have meant higher training realism. Neil Waterman, project engineer at ASTi, noted that, “As technologies have improved, expectations have also grown. Pilots want to hear the same realism in training as they do in the cockpit under actual flight conditions.”
To support the growing requirements for higher levels of fidelity, F-16 training environments are getting a combination of the DACS and Telestra, an advanced, COTS-based system from ASTi, designed to support the application of high level architecture in achieving extended sound fidelity.
Mowery believes the ASTi system contributes to the F-16 in a fundamental way.
“The ability to provide a high-fidelity network radio capability and radio simulation over the network and to maintain a high standard of communications fidelity are all important in simulated unit training.” He pointed out that, in many cases, more than F-16’s are involved. AWACS, F-15 and other aircraft simulators are often added to the network to fly a mission or conduct a rehearsal.
Waterman concurred. “This is what makes mission training realistic for the pilots—getting the same system behavior in the trainer as they get in the airplane. In the audio and voice world, there are many technical issues involved in making communications systems work effectively and in real time. I think our solution does just that.”
Realism in a new Age of Warfare
As good as they are, and receiving high marks from pilots, training simulators must keep up with the infusion of new technologies into platforms like the F-16. They must provide continually higher resolution and realism and produce graphics that suspend disbelief while recreating the dangers and dynamics of flight—whether in a stateside facility or in a trailer in Iraq.
The next-generation F-16 training system from Lockheed Martin can support any training need of national and international air forces including the U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Reserve forces. It immerses the warfighter into a realistic, integrated environment that includes a high-fidelity cockpit and that surrounds a pilot with a 360-degree field-of-view high-fidelity visual system. The F-16 training system delivers training to new student pilots and combat-qualified pilots from initial qualification to multi-combatant, campaign-level expeditionary force.
The U.S. Air Force has chosen this solution to meet its F-16 mission training requirements in its next-generation training paradigm, Distributed Mission Operations (DMO). DMO success relies upon networking one-ship and four-ship flights of F-16s and F-15s along with AWACS, JSTARS and other support aircraft within a system simulation to execute realistic mission exercises.
“The F-16 pilot training system delivers immersive training with realistic visual cues, networked multi-ship capability and real-time correlation between the high-resolution 360-degree visual system and the high-fidelity simulation of aircraft performance,” said Jerry Keehner, executive director of simulation and training at Lockheed Martin in Akron.
“Our pilot training systems support high-level architecture network protocols and will be fully capable of long-haul network operations with other systems and players in a distributed mission operations network.”
The F-16 is expected to continue production until 2010 and perhaps beyond. As technology rolls ahead, keeping training solutions within the realm of sustainable costs will always be the challenge. Future onboard and training systems will depend on the commercial marketplace, what is demanded of the aircraft by its users, what training can be deployed quickly, and what missions need to be flown in what has clearly become a new age of warfare.
“The key to the system,” Keehner said, “is that it provides the components to tailor a training solution producing maximum flexibility and interoperability for any F-16 user.”
Editor’s note: Headquarters Air Combat Command subject matter experts were unavailable to comment for this article.