AETC has desktop representations of cockpits for some its types as well. Just like the most complex and sophisticated operational flight trainers, these simpler devices offer a key cost advantage – availability.
“We’re training in different parts of the country where we may have a thunderstorm every afternoon, bad weather at night, hurricanes a couple times a year.”
“We’re training in different parts of the country where we may have a thunderstorm every afternoon, bad weather at night, hurricanes a couple times a year,” said Merkel, a former USAF flight instructor himself. “We can run a simulator 16, 18, or more hours a day and turn it back to back. So a single simulator is giving eight, perhaps 10 events a day. We can generate sorties all day.”
With weather not an obstacle, the follow-on advantages in scheduling and syllabus progression should further reduce costs. How much? No one really knows. Both the Navy and Air Force have done marginal cost comparisons of a sort, but not to the level of detail really necessary to divine whether real savings would accrue or not.
Gillis confirmed that AETC leaders are in discussion about the impact of likely budget cuts and that there are several working committees assessing various aspects of the command’s cost structure. Energy is chief among them, and Gillis sits on an AETC panel that takes a holistic view of energy usage, which would theoretically include simulation.
Merkel admitted that CNATRA isn’t sure whether increasing the use of simulation would absolutely lower the overall cost of flight training, at least in the short run. “The initial acquisition per singular device can very well exceed the cost of a single airplane,” he said.
High-fidelity full-motion simulators are expensive, $10 million to $12 million per copy, in fact. The lack of certainty underscores the fact that no one has yet defined the variables that go into calculating flight training simulation costs versus live flight costs.
Energy consumption, maintenance, and the cost of outsourcing are more variables.
“We’ve got a lot more fidelity on cost per flying hour than for cost per simulator hour,” Gillis said. “It depends on how you do the calculation. When you buy a simulator you have an up-front investment, the cost of the facility it goes into, power, HVAC, all the things that go into it. You have to decide how to divide that up – can it be done per hour over the life of the simulator?”
Energy consumption, maintenance, and the cost of outsourcing are more variables. Both AETC and CNATRA use contractor-provided simulator instructors. Running the bid process and awarding the contracts are costs that could be factored in to any calculation. Curiously, AETC is moving to bring simulator instruction and academic instruction back into its fold, converting those contractor slots to government civilian positions.
CNATRA has toiled with the possible cost calculations as well. Merkel asserted that to have a proper comparison one would have to lay out exactly which variables would need to be included on both the simulation and aircraft sides. That would include various value-added simulator attributes such as being able to include training events too dangerous to train to in live flight (extreme spin recovery, rotary-wing vortex ring state). There have been suggestions that were such a calculus properly done, the aircraft would likely cost six to 10 times as much as the simulator.
“What if the [costs] were absolutely equal?” Merkel asked. “If flying an aircraft cost exactly the same amount as running a simulator, would you still want to do the simulation? You probably would, because of all those other things. Would you want to do it all? Probably not. There’s intrinsic value in just getting air under your wings and experiencing the stressors of actually being in the aircraft.”
Simulation is doubtless an effective teaching tool that presents opportunities that live flight does not. And the computing power necessary to render highly realistic visuals in concentrated spaces, Merkel pointed out, is accelerating at the same rapid rate as commercial technology, holding the promise of lower costs in the future. Nevertheless, integrating the right “spectrum of devices” to significantly alter the balance of simulation versus live flight in undergraduate pilot training isn’t free.
Nevertheless, integrating the right “spectrum of devices” to significantly alter the balance of simulation versus live flight in undergraduate pilot training isn’t free.
The irony is that even if significant reductions in flight training costs are achievable using a higher degree of simulation, the forces tightening the defense budget may prevent the services from making the initial investment in simulation devices necessary to get there.
This article was first published in Defense: Fall 2011 Edition.