UK — A spell in the cockpit

Roy­al Naval Air Sta­tion Cul­drose demon­strates how 824 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) trains air­crew and engi­neers for the Mer­lin heli­copter fleet.

A ses­sion in one of the Mer­lin Train­ing Facility’s Rear Crew Train­ers, with stu­dents work­ing on the radar and sonar aspects of a sim­u­lat­ed mis­sion [Pic­ture: Crown Copyright/MOD]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

This is a shin­ing exam­ple of joined-up think­ing — a squadron which inte­grates the train­ing of its air­crew and engi­neers before send­ing them out of the door to an oper­a­tional unit and is now lead­ing the Roy­al Navy into a new age of Mer­lin. And the Com­mand­ing Offi­cer of 824 NAS, Com­man­der Gavin Richard­son, says Mer­lin capa­bil­i­ty starts at their front door. 

The front door in ques­tion is the mod­est entrance to the mas­sive Mer­lin Train­ing Facil­i­ty (MTF). The key to its suc­cess lies in the struc­ture of the cours­es — but that is not the most eye-catch­ing facet. That hon­our lies with the train­ing aids, a far too mod­est term for some seri­ous kit. 

Top of the list is the Cock­pit Dynam­ic Sim­u­la­tor (CDS) — ‘the most expen­sive Xbox in the world’, as one mem­ber of the squadron described it. Housed in a vast cham­ber, trainees enter the sim­u­la­tor across a lofty bridge. 

The sim­u­la­tor, like the real air­craft, requires light han­dling, and does not par­tic­u­lar­ly like sud­den, vio­lent movements: 

“We start pilot train­ing on a light air­craft, which needs a light touch, and the first heli­copter we fly — the Squir­rel — is the same,” said sim­u­la­tor instruc­tor Lieu­tenant Craig Howe. 

“So, by the time we get to the heav­ier heli­copters, any heavy­handedness should be beat­en out of us.” 

Offi­cer in charge of the MTF, Lieu­tenant Com­man­der Jag­gers, said: 

“Fun­da­men­tal to crew train­ing is the deck land­ing, and this is ide­al practice.” 

The hydrauli­cal­ly-oper­at­ed Cock­pit Dynam­ic Sim­u­la­tor [Pic­ture: LA(Phot) Bernie Henesy, Crown Copyright/MOD]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Roy­al Fleet Aux­il­iary ves­sel Argus is just one of the ships that Mer­lin pilots can encounter, and — as with the rest of the sim­u­la­tor — the lev­el of accu­ra­cy is impressive: 

“Most UK air­fields are rep­re­sent­ed on the sim­u­la­tor, but the ones we use more often are mod­elled to a bet­ter lev­el than the oth­ers,” said Lieu­tenant Com­man­der Jag­gers. “World­wide we can do the Falk­lands, Gibral­tar — the ones we are like­ly to come across. But cer­tain­ly we have got all the UK mil­i­tary air­fields. And it is amaz­ing how quick­ly you for­get you are in a simulator…” 

When the sim­u­la­tor banks steeply to approach the ship upwind, the visu­al and phys­i­cal sig­nals sug­gest to the pilot that there is a great deal more move­ment than there real­ly is. 

In-house tech­ni­cal staff keep a close eye on what is going on with a ship to keep the sim­u­la­tions bang up-to-date; in the case of Argus the sim­u­lat­ed ship has been remod­elled to mim­ic the real ship, includ­ing recent­ly-changed deck markings. 

As pilots descend towards ships such as HMS Iron Duke, the sea is ruf­fled by the heavy down­draft from the vir­tu­al Mer­lin. Extra fea­tures such as a Russ­ian Aku­la Class sub­ma­rine cruis­ing past can be added. 

“The Type 23 is a lot clos­er to the water than Argus — the flight deck is about 16ft [5m] off the sea, as opposed to 46–48ft [14–15m] with Argus,” said Lieu­tenant Howe, who wry­ly describes him­self as a sim­u­la­tor dis­play pilot. 

“It is much more inti­mate — every­thing is much clos­er, but the pro­ce­dure is the same. The Type 23 is real­ly chal­leng­ing for young pilots.” 

Although stu­dents learn from their mis­takes, instruc­tors are care­ful not to put them in too many tight spots: 

“We have to be care­ful we do not shake a young pilot’s — or anyone’s for that mat­ter — con­fi­dence,” said Lieu­tenant Com­man­der Jag­gers. “Not too much terror…” 

The Weapon Sys­tems Train­er in the Mer­lin Train­ing Facil­i­ty where trainee engi­neers can work on the helicopter’s under­car­riage, weapon mech­a­nisms and sonar [Pic­ture: Crown Copyright/MOD]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Lieu­tenant Howe said land­ing is a sim­ple mat­ter real­ly; just putting the machine down on the ‘bum line’ — a mark on the deck which cor­re­lates with the pilot’s seat in the helicopter. 

Sim­u­la­tion in the world of Mer­lins is noth­ing new — air­crew and engi­neers have been train­ing this way for the best part of a decade. 

One real ben­e­fit of the sim­u­la­tion is the sav­ing of time — instead of mak­ing Mer­lin fly sim­u­la­tor miles to reach a sub­ma­rine, it is eas­i­er and quick­er to move the sub­ma­rine to the Merlin. 

The MTF has oth­er sim­u­la­tors too — maybe not quite as eye-catch­ing, but every bit as impor­tant to the train­ing process. Two cab­ins house Rear Crew Train­ers (RCTs), where trainee air­crew can get to grips with the elec­tron­ic kit found behind the cock­pit of a Merlin. 

It is a sim­ple task to link the dis­plays of the RCTs to the CDS, allow­ing a full sim­u­lat­ed mis­sion despite the fact the stu­dents are in dif­fer­ent parts of the build­ing. What­ev­er the pilot can see (or can­not see if it is dark or murky) from the cock­pit is repro­duced exact­ly in radar or sonar form. 

And while the pilots invari­ably grab the lime­light, the folk in the back work­ing on the screens are trained to be peer­less oper­a­tors of sophis­ti­cat­ed son­ics and sonar equip­ment which are crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of anti-sub­ma­rine operations. 

For the pilots there is also a Cock­pit Pro­ce­dur­al Train­er which does not have the visu­als and motion of the CDS but allows stu­dents to go through cock­pit drills using exact­ly the same con­trols, switch­es, but­tons and dis­plays as they will use in the real thing. 

Although the 13-month air­crew cours­es are in the minor­i­ty at the MTF, they last longer and absorb most train­ing resources; the fact that they are split 65:35 in favour of sim­u­lat­ed train­ing gives some indi­ca­tion as to the sav­ings made in terms of air time, fuel costs and the fact that train­ing is much less weath­er-depen­dent than before the advent of such accu­rate simulations. 

In a cur­ricu­lum mov­ing towards com­put­er-aid­ed train­ing — sim­i­lar to com­put­er-based train­ing, but with an instruc­tor present to ease them along at their own pace — the fledg­ling engi­neers start in a series of edu­ca­tion­al suites on the ground floor; the MTF has an in-house net­work of 14 servers, 83 work­sta­tions and 33 laptops. 

When ready they move on to the Mechan­i­cal Sys­tems Trainer. 

The train­er is based on the upper part of the air­craft; it has rotors (although the blades are stubs), full trans­mis­sion and hydraulic machin­ery, and myr­i­ad faults can be pro­grammed in by instruc­tors for trainees to tack­le. It is con­fig­ured exact­ly the same as the real Mer­lin, and stu­dents can even prac­tise chang­ing engines as if in the con­fined space of a Type 23 frigate using a Hoist Boom Assembly. 

Next door is the Weapon Sys­tems Trainer: 

“This is used to train on weapons, the under­car­riage, sonar, the deck-grab and so on,” said Lieu­tenant Com­man­der Jaggers. 

“We can prac­tise load­ing and unload­ing, and with the Mk2 Mer­lin we can do the machine gun as well as the depth charges and Stingray torpedo.” 

Stu­dents grad­u­al­ly build up skill and expe­ri­ence at work­ing on the equip­ment, whether in nor­mal light or in degrees of dark­ness, gain­ing con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ties as they progress. 

Of course, there comes a time when the trainees get the chance to test them­selves in the real world, and across the road from the MTF is 824 Naval Air Squadron’s head­quar­ters — and a clutch of gen­uine, sol­id, three-dimen­sion­al Mer­lin heli­copters. For most trainees, the tran­si­tion is prac­ti­cal­ly seamless. 

And they do not leave the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mer­lin with just a set of deep mil­i­tary skills. In part­ner­ship with the Open Uni­ver­si­ty, suc­cess­ful offi­cers pass­ing through 824 NAS achieve a foun­da­tion degree in Mil­i­tary Avi­a­tion Stud­ies, whilst air­crew obtain a City and Guilds Lev­el 3 Diploma. 

The train­ing facil­i­ty is set up to pro­vide in excess of 20,000 stu­dent train­ing hours each year. Of its 70 or so staff, just under half are Roy­al Navy instruc­tors — engi­neer and air­crew — while anoth­er 20 are civ­il servants. 

And even out­side the sim­u­la­tors, 824 Naval Air Squadron’s per­for­mance is impres­sive — the squadron deliv­ers 33 per cent of the Merlin’s fly­ing rate with only 25 per cent of the Navy’s assets. 

This sto­ry is a short­ened ver­sion of a fea­ture pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 2012 edi­tion of Navy News. 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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