Financial Benefit: The US Air Force's Boom Operator Weapon System Trainer at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., gives airmen a realistic sense of inflight refueling at a far lower cost. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Over the past year, top US Air Force officials have been adamant that the future of training lies in moving more and more pilot hours toward simulators. It’s a situation that has arisen both due to technological improvements and the need to save money in fiscally constrained times.
While aircraft simulators have been around for years, simulation of aerial refueling operations have often lagged. Air Mobility Command hopes to change that with the Boom Operator Weapon System Trainer (BOWST), the first high-fidelity simulator for operating the KC-135 Stratotanker’s refueling boom. KC-135 operators have traditionally had only two options for training — the operator part test trainer at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., or the high cost of live fight training.
Altus has done away with the older trainer in favor of its digital cousin, and the new system is active in six locations around the country, with systems at March Air Force Base, Calif., and Scott Air Force Base, Ill., expected to be up and running before the end of 2014.
The BOWST was designed and manufactured by CymSTAR, an Oklahoma-based simulation firm. According to Alex Nick, executive vice president for CymSTAR, the prototype unit was completely designed and manufactured in 18 months. After delivery, the BOWST falls under the purview of CAE, the lead contractor for KC-135 training and simulation programs, which is operating under a five-year deal worth roughly $65 million.
This month, Defense News visited MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., to see the BOWST. The visit was arranged, but not paid for, by CAE USA, a Tampa-based maker of aircraft training and simulations gear.
The setup is designed to look and feel like a boom station in the rear of a KC-135. Trainees climb down a flight of steps into a cabin that includes seats that require operators to lie on their bellies. While the BOWST is a non-motion simulator, background noise mimicking the sounds of a plane in flight, and the realistic cockpit setup, help create the illusion of being in the air.
Trainees are connected via headset to the “pilot” — in reality an operator running the simulator from a desktop computer station above the trainer. That operator sets the scenarios, including which planes will be refueled, what weather conditions are, and what, if anything, will go wrong during flights.
That last option is particularly useful, with operators citing the ability to throw almost 70 different scenarios at trainees.
“The use of our simulators, our BOWST, enhances our capability and our readiness by allowing us to shift more of our complex malfunctions and emergencies into a focused training scenario,” Air Force Col. Brian Smith, Sixth Operations Group commander, said.
Smith highlighted the ability to change refueling methods as a major advantage of the BOWST. KC-135 pilots have to be trained on three different methods of refueling — the traditional boom operation, a probe-and-drogue system that can be attached via field adapter kit, and wing refueling hoses. Switching the boom over to a drogue system requires the tanker to land and go through field maintenance, which would limit the amount of hours in the air a boom operator can get each day.
“With the BOWST, I can interchange that thing all day long,” Smith said, noting that in a three-hour training session, a pilot could easily cycle through all three methods on a variety of aircraft. “So the efficiency in that is huge. That’s time and money from maintainers to do that swap, and you give them the ability to interchange during their training scenario.”
According to AMC estimates provided by Sgt. Brandon Shapiro, 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs, the average cost of a three hour KC-135 refuel training mission is around $20,000. For comparison, the same three-hour training window with the BOWST costs roughly $900. That figure includes paying for the instructor, regular maintenance and electricity needed to run the simulator.
Shapiro said MacDill intends to fly around 860 simulated KC-135 missions in fiscal 2014. If those flights were done live, that would cost $17.2 million. Instead, it will cost the service $774,000.
No simulator is perfect, of course. The largest issue still facing the KC-135 Aircrew Training System (ATS), as well as the BOWST, is how to simulate the physics of getting within close contact of another jet. Each jet being refueled creates a different aerodynamic impact on the refueling plane. Smith, however, expressed confidence that this problem will be solved eventually.
Another challenge is that BOWST operates independently of other systems. The goal, perhaps in as soon as three to five years, is to have the pilot ATS synched up with the BOWST to replicate the experience between pilot and boom operator.
In turn, that simulator pairing could be connected to others around the country in a Distributed Missions Operator network, creating a situation where a pilot training on an F-16 simulator in Utah could be “refueled” by a KC-135 pilot in Tampa. ■