NAVAL AIRBASE NORDHOLZ, Germany — The yellow-vested crewman is a stoic fellow. Perched overlooking the frigate’s helicopter landing deck, he stares into nothingness as incoming pilots attempt to set their Sea Lynx choppers onto the ship’s bobbing surface before his eyes. For a moment during the maneuver, the figure’s digital outline appears suspended in midair — a graphical glitch that somehow fails to surprise. This is, after all, a simulator. In here, reality cuts corners.

Such is the story of simulator training. It’s a known imperfection and a coveted improvement at the same time. There’s no shortage of innovation in the industry to boost the sense of realism for aspiring pilots sitting in virtual cockpits. Proficiency on certain tasks, especially the dull ones, is most economically practiced in dimly lit apparatuses on the ground, where failure carries no risk.

But it’s not the same as the real thing, adrenaline and heart-pounding and all. And it’s not meant to be, either, as both flight instructors and the companies supplying them with a never-ending stream of new technology will readily acknowledge. The question is how do military aviators find the sweet spot between lifelike and actual life.

Listening to German Navy officers during a recent visit at this base near Bremerhaven and the North Sea, it sounds like that choice has been made for them. A lack of personnel combined with an aging fleet of P-3C Orion planes and Sea Lynx and Sea King helicopters stationed here has pushed the ratio to 70 percent simulator training versus 30 percent live instruction for new pilots — the maximum allowed.

“It feels wrong,” Cmdr. Jan Keller, commanding officer of Naval Air Wing 5 Flying Group, told reporters. He said it is hard to truly recreate the “feel” of flying actual missions.

At the same time, simulation is becoming more critical because the sea service lacks the resources to devote enough flying hours, laboriously squeezed out of decades-old aircraft, to live training. Plus, fewer young Germans aspire to join the armed forces and become Navy pilots, which means there is very little room for error in graduating those who actually do.

How do military aviators find the sweet spot between lifelike and actual life? (Sebastian Sprenger/Staff)
How do military aviators find the sweet spot between lifelike and actual life? (Sebastian Sprenger/Staff)

Nordholz produces between 15 and 20 pilots annually across its helicopter and fixed-wing portfolio.

“The time when you had a lot of people to throw at a lot of systems are over,” Keller said. “We never had that in Germany anyway.”

There is a similar trend in other European countries, opening the possibility — or need — to join forces with other nations in filling training pipelines for similar aircraft.

The Lynx simulator at Nordholz, for example, trains naval aircrews from Germany, Denmark and Portugal under an arrangement called the Joint Lynx Simulator Training Establishment. Housed in a sizable hall near the base entrance, the machine’s hydraulic legs help simulate the movement of flight. But even without the feature turned on, the simulator offers a great degree of visual realism, much of which was derived from the gaming industry, explains the German Navy official in charge of it.

Next to the Lynx simulator, inside a large, black cube, sits an Sea King Mk41 simulator, upgraded last year with a new video-surround projection system and other features by Canadian-based contractor CAE.

The German Navy’s 21 Sea Kings are scheduled to leave service in 2023. With a service life of more than 40 years and counting, the helicopters are so old that officials said they routinely scour the globe — often in remote places — for spare parts to keep the aircraft flying.

Next door outside, workers have begun clearing a soccer field-sized patch for what will be the site of a new NH90 simulator at Nordholz, a much-anticipated replacement helicopter for the German Navy’s legacy fleet. Initially eyed for search-and-rescue missions, the NH90 Sea Lion, made by a European consortium of Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo and Fokker Aerostructures, could later pick up additional duties.

The P-3C Orion cockpit simulator here was initially booked almost every day. Now there are about 10 uses per month, a Navy instructor tells reporters. (German Navy)
The P-3C Orion cockpit simulator here was initially booked almost every day. Now there are about 10 uses per month, a Navy instructor tells reporters. (German Navy)

The government is still collecting bids for the simulator contract, though officials said nothing will be built on the designated clearing here until after the envisioned October 2019 aircraft delivery date. That means naval pilot trainees will have to find yet another workaround.

Training and simulation companies are facing notably different market landscapes in the United States and in the more cash-strapped European militaries. In some ways, the sales proposition to the lavishly funded U.S. forces lies in the area of complementing and optimizing training programs. For many customers in Europe, including the German Navy, the fixation on simulation is more borne out of a lack of alternatives.

“The volume in the states is much higher” than in Europe, said Marc-Olivier Sabourin, CAE’s vice president and general manager for Europe and Africa. “But in the end, the result of producing readily trained pilots is the same.”

In the case of the German Navy, personnel shortages are so acute that simulators contracted for high availability are seeing usage rates drop because there aren’t enough crews available. The P-3C Orion cockpit simulator here, for example, initially was booked almost every day. Now there are about 10 uses per month, a Navy instructor told reporters.

According to Keller, there are only enough service members to fill five of the eight P-3C crews written into the base’s table of organization. The rates are even worse for the other platforms: The Sea Lynx fleet needs 12 crews but has only four; Sea King crews are at six out of 15.

Meanwhile, the simulation industry is shifting toward not just creating real-world experience but measuring student performance at the same time.

“We’ve reached a point where we can replicate flight 100 percent,” Philippe Perey, international development director at CAE, told Defense News.

The next step is automatically analyzing the data gleaned from students in simulators to derive an additional perspective about their performance besides a human’s judgment. “There is quite a bit of variation even among instructors,” Perey said.

The jargon for this approach is “closed-loop training,” and Perey was quick to point out that “we never override the instructor.”

At the same time, mining data about student decisions — the good and the bad — and adjusting syllabuses accordingly could unearth pilot weaknesses that humans don’t have the brains to see.