WASHINGTON — When KC-46 training starts at Altus Air Force Base next year, pilots and boom operators will conduct aerial refueling training together for the first time ever in linked, full-motion simulators.

Simulation training will also replace a large portion of live flights, members of the 56th Air Refueling Squadron at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, told Defense News.

Pilots learning to fly the Air Force’s oldest tanker, the KC-135, could expect to do about 15 to 20 simulated missions. KC-46 pilots will execute anywhere from 25 to 35 simulated missions, with only three live flights needed in the aircraft before they can move to their operational base, said Maj. Steven Whitson, the squadron’s standards and evaluation officer.

Although full-motion simulators have existed for decades, the KC-46 training program at Altus will mark the first time both tanker pilots and boom operators will be able to use them together to practice tactics and progress through scenarios at the same time, said Tech Sgt. Eric Flanders, the squadron’s non-commissioned officer in charge of tactics.

"Everything that they do up front, we're going to feel in the back for the first time ever. It’s going to bring a lot of fidelity. Our training is going to be increased exponentially," he said.

The 56th Air Refueling Squadron reactivated in August, after the base poured $33.5 million into new infrastructure, including $6.2 million on a fuselage trainer and a $12 million flight training center.

kc-46 altus

A March 2015 shot of the U.S. Air Force KC-46 Pegasus refueling aircraft flight training facility and fuselage trainer at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Both projects were completed before the standup of the 56th Air Refueling Squadron in 2016.
Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Megan Myhre/USAF

The squadron currently comprises 23 airmen — all of them qualified instructors for other aircraft, mostly the KC-135, said Whitson. These airmen, like Whitson and Flanders, have not gone through the KC-46 training program yet, but will be one of the first airmen that experience the curriculum before becoming instructors.

Much of the training schedule — including when the squadron instructions will wrap up their own training and begin teaching the first class of pilots and boom operators — hinges on the delivery of the first KC-46A aircraft and the associated simulators to the base.

"We’ve done everything we can do as aircrew," Whitson said. "Altus is ready to receive aircraft and start training tomorrow."

That airplane is slated to arrive in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2017.

FlightSafety International is responsible for manufacturing the KC-46 full-motion simulators, which have a 225-degree field of view and glass displays that present crisper imagery than legacy simulators, said Ron Ladnier, president of FlightSafety Services Corp. The systems can be linked with other KC-46 simulators located at different bases around the country, allowing students to practice larger missions.

In 2013, FlightSafety was awarded a $78 million contract to produce the academic courseware, the simulators and other educational materials like part task trainers and fuselage trainers. The company is slated to deliver training equipment in spring 2017, at least 60 days before the arrival of the first KC-46.

After an academic phase run by FlightSafety, students will begin practicing standard and emergency procedures using part task trainers that mimic the interfaces they will see inside the KC-46, Flanders said. Then they will move on to the full-motion simulators.

Part of the reason so much of the training has been moved out of the cockpit is because technology has improved the fidelity of simulators by leaps and bounds.

"In the past we didn't have the technology to make training realistic enough," Whitson said. For example, landing in the KC-135 simulator always felt different than landing the plane itself because the training system couldn’t exactly mimic the mechanics of the aircraft. In a fly-by-wire aircraft like the KC-46, data can be collected about the aircraft’s performance and then used to build a high-fidelity simulator.

FlightSafety paid particular attention to the different air flows around the KC-46 and receiver aircraft, as well as the interplay of those air flows, Ladnier said. That aerodynamic interaction provides a difficult challenge to tanker operators as they conduct refueling missions, but is also one of the most challenging things to replicate in a simulator.

"We’ve worked very hard on that and we think we’re going to have a good simulation of what that’s like."

Another feature is that the simulators can now reproduce more complex scenarios. For instance, pilots and boom operators will be able to practice taking off, flying to an area and refueling a C-17, Flanders said. During that task, an instructor could program an adversary aircraft to begin flying toward the KC-46, and the aircrew would then have to practice following proper procedures to break away from the receiver aircraft and land.

In a KC-135, that scenario would be conducted in a completely different way, he said. Pilots and boom operators do not interact at all during training, so a boom operator would be sitting in a simulator listening to an instructor, who would roleplay as the pilot using a written script.

At Altus, pilots and boom operators will conduct only a handful of live events inside the KC-46 — two flights and a check ride that validates their training and qualifies them for their position — before moving on to an operational squadron for additional practice.  

Pilots will spend about 82 days going through training at Altus AFB, although they may spend slightly less time there if they have already been certified to receive fuel during aerial refueling. Boom operator training will take approximately 59 days, Flanders said.