Northrop Grumman has successfully conducted a high-fidelity virtual aerial refueling demonstration, networking geographically dispersed flight simulators and providing a realistic simulation of an air-to-air refueling process.
The US Air Force Air Mobility Command has pursued integrating the separate systems used today for training pilots, air crews and boom operators to simulate an actual in-flight refueling mission as a way to maintain readiness and reduce costly live flights.
During the Oct. 30 demonstration, Northrop Grumman connected a pilot in a C-17 transport flight simulator in Texas, an operator in a KC-135 tanker flight simulator in Florida and a boom operator in the Boom Operator Weapons Systems Trainer (BOWST) simulator in Okla., with all three simulators operating simultaneously via the Mobility Air Forces (MAF) Distributed Mission Operations (DMO) test network.
Northrop Grumman has been the prime contractor for the US Air Force's Distributed Mission Training Operations and Integration program since 1999, supporting Air Combat Command. The MAF DMO contract supporting Air Mobility Command began in 2011.
"This feat affirms that we can master the simulation of 'the last 50 feet' of aerial refueling, which is a fundamental and unique capability of our Mobility Air Forces and the linchpin to joint power projection at intercontinental distances," said Col. Peter Eide, chief of the Simulators Division for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Agile Combat Support Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. "The Air Force can reap significant rewards from the expanded use of high fidelity simulator systems by the Mobility Air Forces, as it has from their use by combat assets."
An active-duty C-17 pilot and a KC-135 boom operator flew the missions, performing closure, contact, bank turns and disconnect to demonstrate real-world critical interaction between the three simulator platforms. The missions also included the use of standard visual references, radio communications and the tactical air navigation system, or TACAN.
"In supporting MAF DMO Northrop Grumman has been able to leverage significant commonalities and efficiencies from some 15 years of work on the Distributed Mission Training Operations and Integration program, but the team mastered some very complex technical challenges to achieve this critical new capability for our warfighters. This achievement will not only help enhance readiness but also provide significant cost savings for the Air Force," said Mike Twyman, vice president and general manager of the Defense Systems division, Northrop Grumman Information Systems.
To accomplish this unprecedented interoperability, Northrop Grumman defined more than 70 "physics-based" virtual aerial refueling standards for simulators and implemented them on a distributed integration framework. The company then led interoperability analysis, network integration and simulator-upgrade efforts by the industry team of CAE, CymSTAR and L-3 Communications.
CAE is the prime contractor for the KC-135 Aircrew Training System in Tampa, Fla. Oklahoma-based CymSTAR designed and manufactured the BOWST. L-3 Link Simulation & Training, Arlington, Texas, provided the C-17 Weapons System Trainer.
"We scored a success on multiple levels," said Sean Carey, Air Mobility Command's Distributed Mission Operations chief. "Technically, we mitigated networking risks by establishing and validating the adequacy of standards to accomplish virtual air refueling activity. From a program management perspective, we successfully integrated contracting efforts across three programs involving four separate contract support teams – not an easy task in such a short period of time. This sets the stage for modifications to our simulators with a potential savings of up to $66 million annually with the movement of additional training from live fly to the simulators."
Air Force Maj. Erick Brough, the C-17 instructor pilot, said, "It is hard to believe the boom operator is not just 50 feet away from you, but that he is two states away. There were no delays; the mission was real-time and very realistic."
Air Force Master Sgt. Shane Haney, the boom operator, said, "It was air refueling and when I gave verbal corrections to the receiver pilot I saw immediate movement to the correct position. There were no delays."
"This major step toward achieving the Air Mobility Command's vision of persistent virtual air refueling could potentially reap significant cost savings across the command and other major commands," said Michael Aldinger, Northrop Grumman's program manager for the MAF DMO Operations and Integration contract.
Northrop Grumman is currently under contract to enhance the capability to include higher fidelity elements such as fuel flow, boom forces and moments and fully implement it as part of the MAF DMO training architecture.