JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. –
First Lt. Joseph Mull, a pilot with the 1st Helicopter Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, flew one of two UH-1N Hueys in formation over the National Capital Region.
The storyline was a routine 30-minute mission in late October where Mull followed leader Huey taking off from Andrews and navigating through a series of checkpoints before returning to base. However, no one was actually in the lead helicopter, and Mull never left the ground the whole time.
Instead of a real helicopter, Mull had donned a virtual reality headset and was flying a UH-1N in a flight simulator assembled by the 316th Operations Support Squadron to support the 1st HS mission. The VR simulator was assembled after the regular simulator was sent for repair, and everything, including software, desktop computer, monitor, seat, VR headset and flight controls, was purchased in commercial, but the pilots modified the components to customize the simulator as their own. .
The simulator Mull was piloting is one of seven VR stations housed in the 1st HS headquarters building. They use X-Plane flight simulator software and linking stations together allows pilots to practice as they fly in multi-ship formations.
Major Mitchell Clapp, OSS 316th Deputy Director of Operations, was able to channel his lifelong passion for video games as the architect of the VR simulation system.
“I was an avid gamer as a kid, and I still game, so I followed technology,” said Clapp, who also has a degree in computer science. “When I was younger and playing games, I wanted to mod and edit games.”
The VR simulator project began about a year and a half ago when the regular helicopter simulator was crated and hauled out of state for repairs and updates. This simulator takes up an entire room as it is modeled after a real Huey cockpit and is mounted in front of a giant projection screen. Due to the time required to restore, the current system using commercial software and components was designed as a workaround by the 316th OSS. The VR system was still in its infancy when Clapp – who flew UH-1Ns here from 2010 to 2014 – returned to JBA for a second mission. Initially, squadron management wanted to find a contractor to fulfill the needs of the system, but with his experience in the game, they handed the reins over to Clapp.
“When the need arose here, we had the basic system, but things just weren’t going well,” he recalls. “The game engine comes with a back-end support program that we can use to modify buildings or add new ones. It wasn’t complicated to start with. jumped into more elaborate stuff. After thousands of YouTube videos, I’m basically going to masters school now for this.”
The X-Plane computer program has a library of items such as buildings and trees that can be added to the simulator’s landscape, and Clapp said he used other 3D modeling software to create objects from scratch. to ensure detail and accuracy of important navigation points.
One such building that was added was a power plant that crews use as a reference when flying over roads around the NCR. This building was not part of the virtual reality world, so 1st Lt. Daniel Herndon, a pilot with the 316th OSS, studied Google Earth images and others found on the Internet to render an accurate likeness.
“I built it in a few days,” recalls Herndon. “It was one of my fastest.”
The last structure built from scratch added to the map was the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge spanning the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. The bridge opened in 2021 to replace the old South Capitol Street Bridge, and the new bridge has longer arches tall and spans the river in a slightly different location as it was erected while the old bridge was still in use.
“Not only are all of these pilots building the landscape and polishing the map, as they do that they become more and more familiar with our mission,” Clapp said. “That translates directly into their knowledge of this city, which is part of their job when they fly.”
A pilot like Mull who just finished flight school hasn’t been here long enough to complete the helicopter training required before flying out on a real-world mission. He said he spends about eight to 10 hours a week modeling landscapes and buildings to place on the VR map, and that this, coupled with flying in the simulator, will benefit him once he gets the hang of it. commands in a real Huey.
“I started out studying routes on paper, but learning through virtual reality gives me a better idea of routes and areas,” he said. “Seeing an actual geographic representation and knowing what everything looks like visually is super helpful.”
In addition to RCN training, the VR simulator is also great for getting familiar with if pilots are going to be flying out of the area, Clapp said. From regular missions to community engagement events like flyovers and static display requests, pilots can pre-fly the route before leaving the ground.
“For instance, [when] the squadron is tasked with supporting an event, we don’t have to go blind,” he said. “In the area where we are going to land, we can put the trees in the right place, give them the right height and make the buildings have the right footprint. Before the real mission begins, we have already traveled some roads, looked at the city and memorized it.
To improve training, in the middle of the room with the seven VR stations is what the pilots call “The Sand Table”. Assembled as a raised sandbox for children, it is a large wooden constructed square that Clapp has built at home. It is filled with sand that can be shaped by hand to render the terrain of the NCR with its elevations and depressions of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Dimming the lights in the room, an overhead projector beams a geographic map and icons depict the squadron’s helicopters as VR missions are carried out in real time. Missions are recorded for replay for debriefing and training purposes. The base’s SparkX Cell Innovation and Ideas Center is 3D printing miniature models of the White House, Washington Monument, United States Capitol, and Lincoln Memorial to contribute to the landscape of “The Sand Table “.
With seven cockpits and three other development stations for mapping and modeling, the VR system cost around $70,000 to assemble, Clapp said. With the hands-on approach – part of training new pilots is creating sets in the VR world – updates and fixes are fast.
Clapp sees no reason why other flying units couldn’t duplicate the VR setup. While X-Plane only offers civilian planes (and only one is a helicopter), the program comes with software to design and edit planes for use in the simulator.
X-Plane is the flight simulator program of choice over other apps because it’s easier to customize and the virtual world is more complete, Herndon added. The first X-Plane program was released in 1995, and it has seen several variations and updates over the years. The Squadron is currently using X-Plane 11 and will soon upgrade to version 12, which was released in mid-October in Early Access with a full release expected around Christmas.
“I already have the demo there and imported some stuff, so I already know it works,” Clapp said. “It should be a relatively easy transition. It’s just a matter of getting it here and running.
The repair of the old simulator is complete; it was returned to service at Joint Base Andrews a few months ago and still has some strengths. It has been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force District of Washington, so pilots can log actual flight hours. Since it’s modeled after a Huey cockpit, it physically resembles the real thing with gauges and switches, and it has two seats for the pilot and co-pilot (or pilot and trainer) sitting side by side. the other.
The old simulator is also supported by an on-site contractor for routine maintenance and updates. With Clapp in charge of the VR system, someone should take over when he receives permanent station change orders, which he estimates to be in July. Another possibility is to hire a civilian to provide continuity.
The VR system is useful for training in multi-ship formations and pilots taking responsibility for improvements, Clapp said. Improvements such as adding the GPS satellite and modifying the flight characteristics of the helicopter are some of the future possibilities to add to the realism of the simulator.
“Technology has gotten to a point where this stuff is getting better and better,” Clapp said. “There is infinite potential.”
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