EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — To use the military’s new multimillion dollar, state-of-the-art F-35 flight simulators, pilots must first be in the dark.
When a pilot steps into the expansive room that houses a simulator — about 40 feet by 50 feet with a towering 40-foot ceiling — it’s pitch black.
The entire room is painted matte black. The only light comes from reflectors along a walkway that leads the pilot up to a full-size replica of the fighter jet’s cockpit.
Once the pilot is inside, the cockpit slides along a conveyor belt through a small opening and into the actual simulator, a 30-foot globe resembling a giant golf ball.
Then there is light.
The globe is aglow with a 360-degree visual display made up of about 30 high-definition projector screens.
No other light can be let in because the world inside the golf ball is now the pilot’s reality. He’s on Eglin’s flight line preparing to soar off at 9 Gs.
The visuals are of such high fidelity and accuracy it’s easy to forget that you’re not flying a real jet. At least that’s how the pilots tell it.
The rooms that house Eglin’s four simulators are classified and not open to the public or the media. Lockheed Martin, the company that produces them, declined to disclose its dimensions, the specifications of the computer system that runs it or the cost. Representatives said the information was sensitive, technical data.
The pilots who have used the simulators, though, testified to their staggering size and scope while in a classroom at Eglin recently.
They compared using the simulators to going on a theme park ride or hopping aboard the Battlestar Galactica — the pilot is immersed in another world. The pilots said they are an invaluable tool in learning to fly the military’s newest fighter jet.
“I’m positive I’m not the only pilot in this room that has forgotten he is in a simulator,” said Marine Maj. Michael Rountree, one of the first certified F-35 pilots and an instructor at the school. “You don’t even remember that you’re not moving. The way things move around you in that 360-degree globe, it feels like you’re flying and you just forget.”
Pilots from all branches of the military go through training at the schoolhouse at Eglin to learn to fly the F-35. Plans call for dozens of pilots to attend this year.
The simulators are a major part of the six-week curriculum.
The course includes academics and actual flights in the plane, but most of the lessons take place in a simulator, said Air Force Maj. Matt Johnston, one of the first pilots to go through the program as a student. Now he’s an instructor and director of standardization and evaluation for the Air Force’s variant of the jet.
After academics and lessons on computers using less-costly joystick programs, students move on to the simulators.
The first few lessons cover basic operations.
One of the groundbreaking features of the simulator is the high resolution and fidelity of the visual display, said Greg Wilder, the lead instructor pilot for Lockheed Martin. It provides a 360-degree view that moves as fast as the jet would. It also is programmed with the actual landscape around Eglin.
“When you take off you see Destin, you see the Destin Bridge, the Pass, all the bayous,” Wilder said. “Everything that is out there.”
The sound of the engine is simulated, as are the sounds of the landing gear and other operations. The pilot can feel the thumps and jolts in the seat.
After the first few lessons on basic operations, pilots start to learn how to handle emergencies and other unexpected factors that could affect their flights.
Another groundbreaking aspect of the simulator is how dynamic it is. Instructors sit at a control consul and manipulate a host of conditions, from the environment to how the plane is functioning, Wilder said.
An instructor can make the simulator mimic different malfunctions or emergencies until the student learns how to respond correctly so the jet can be landed safely.
“These guys put you through the ringer,” Johnston said. “You are just getting hammered with emergency after emergency. These are not things you can go out and do in the jet. I can’t see what an engine fire looks like in the F-35, but (an instructor) will continue to do that to me until I can somehow manage a way to survive through it.”
Instructors can also play weatherman.
“We can make it a beautiful Florida day without a cloud in the sky, or if I want to stress them we can start bringing in clouds and lowering visibility. We can make it start raining,” Wilder said. “We start them out nice and easy — nice day, good weather. ‘OK, you can handle that, now let’s turn it up a notch and see what you can do.’ ”
Rountree said instructors can marry the simulator with the student’s learning style, reaching into the computer and making it perform to hammer home a point.
The simulator also can allow pilots to practice refueling in the air, landing on an aircraft carrier, evading missile fire from other aircraft or the ground and flying in formation.
Two simulators also can link together. Pilots in one will see when the pilot in the other lowers his landing gear.
In a practice engine fire, the pilot sees smoke coming off the plane. If there is a hydraulic leak, red fluid can be seen on the bottom of the plane.
Wilder, who was an F-16 pilot in the Air Force for 16 years before moving to Lockheed to develop the F-35, said no simulator he’s ever seen has offered that level of detail.
“That’s Disney World kind of stuff,” he said. “You just don’t do that in military simulators anywhere to that kind of fidelity, but that’s the detail they’ve gone with us. That’s amazing to me.”
The level of detailed instruction is important because once pilots go up in a single-seat F-35, they have to have learned in a relatively short time how to take off, fly and land successfully and safely on their own. The simulator makes that possible, the pilots said.
“The simulators could be a little lower fidelity in an F-16 or Harrier because you’d have someone back there who had experience who would ride the controls for you and maybe even fly it around a little so you could get a feel for it,” Rountree said. “In this airplane you don’t have that luxury. We have to be able to take off that airplane the first time and land it the first time safely by ourselves.”
He said the simulator bridges the gap between the academics and actually flying the plane for the first time.
“There was that seat-of-the-pants feel, but that was it,” Rountree said. “There were no surprises.”
Not only is the simulator providing a high-level of education, but lessons cost much less than actually operating the jets.
A fifth simulator is set to go online at Eglin in several weeks, Wilder said.
The course can allow students to go from no instruction to flying the F-35 solo in such a short period of time because of the simulators, Wilder said.
“You couldn’t have done this 15 or 20 years ago,” he said. “The simulators just weren’t good enough back then.”
This article has been corrected from a previous version to indicate that dozens of pilots are expected to go through the training school this year, not hundreds.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.