Arriving at Middle Wallop airbase is like travelling back in time. Historic
aircraft line the approach and most of the hangars inside date from the Second
World War, when Spitfire pilots scrambled from its grass runway to fight
the Battle of Britain in the skies overhead.
I’m almost history myself a few hours later, flying out off from Middle Wallop in a Lynx helicopter – officially the fastest chopper in the world. Below me, corn is blowing in the wind, and the village itself is just visible on a sunny hillside. Pilot Ken Bailey banks the Lynx and speeds at low altitude towards the nearby river Test, where the downdraft kicks up a spray of water to obscure our view.
It couldn’t happen at a worse time. The Lynx’s weapons system screeches a warning and almost immediately two radar-guided missiles flash past us. I’m thrown forward in my seat as Ken dives for cover through their smoke trails, but he hasn’t seen the tanks tracking us from the trees beneath.
It’s not looking good for Cadet Pilot Harris… until the cockpit suddenly goes dark and a door behind us opens, revealing an air-conditioned control room behind. Luckily for me, this is actually the Army Air Corp’s ultra-realistic Lynx simulator, an advanced training device… and one of the best video games ever made.
Back in the real Middle Wallop, Ken reveals some of the (non-classified!) technology behind the multi-million pound simulator: “Five High Definition projectors give a realistic view from the cockpit, six electric pistons are capable of 69 computer-generated types of movement and it even has surround sound speakers to replicate engine and rotor noise.”
The whole simulator is controlled by a bank of computers that contain databases of ‘synthetic environments’ from Kuwait to Belize, plus realistic depictions of weapons and vehicles from all over the world. “This is advanced kit,” Ken tells me. “The satellite maps you can see in Google Earth today are what we were acquiring 15 years ago. And we’ve got a lot more since!”
The simulator is used by newly qualified pilots to get them familiar with the Lynx, the Army’s aircraft of choice for intelligence gathering and battlefield logistics. Here they practice emergency procedures, such as double engine failures, that are too dangerous to try for real, as well as getting used to all kinds of weather and terrain. With the click of a mouse, instructors outside can turn day into night, summon up a thunderstorm… or drop a Russian invasion force into rural Hampshire.
Although crashing a virtual Lynx won’t cause any injuries, it could mean game over for a pilot’s career. Every ‘sortie’ in the simulator is ruthlessly graded – and even counts towards the pilot’s total of flying hours to complete their course. “I can’t recall when someone last crashed in the simulator,” says Ken thoughtfully, “Of course, some do get shot down!”
Talking of shooting things down, it’s time to head over to the Army’s Aviation Command and Tactics Trainer or ACTT. This is the ultimate LAN party: £12 million worth of PCs and software used to train pilots headed for the Army’s latest toy – the Apache attack helicopter. Apache pilot Major John Griffiths sums up the experience of controlling the £30 million aircraft, “Flying an Apache after a Lynx is the difference between driving a BMW 7 Series and a Mini.”
If the simulators are where pilots learn how to fly, ACTT is where they learn how to fight. Its 12 networked battle stations equate to 6 two-man Apaches, which can work as a team on virtual battlefields anywhere in the world, fighting intelligent enemies in real time.
Each battle station comprises a genuine Apache helicopter seat perched in front of a bank of high resolution PC monitors. One of them is a ‘glass cockpit’: a programmable touch-screen display that mimics the Apache’s flight deck. Powering each one are 16 high speed PCs, many using cutting edge ATI graphics cards that aren’t yet available on civvy street.
There’s no motion simulation here, but that doesn’t mean the ACTT is an easy ride. Instructors can throw pilots into battles with hundreds of AI (artificially intelligent) enemies that are just itching to shoot down a British Army Apache.
I’m given a slightly easier task: to take off in an Apache, fly over a hill and take out an enemy helicopter placidly hovering over its base. “Don’t worry,” says instructor Captain Jasper Pritchard as he straps me in, “The PlayStation generation finds using our simulators a doddle. Most 12 year olds are flying, using the radar, targeting with lasers and firing missiles on their own with 15 minutes.”
Unfortunately, there’s rarely a 12 year old around when you need one, and my wobbly flight path must have had the virtual air traffic controllers pulling their cyber hair out. I narrowly miss an inconveniently placed electricity pylon and head shakily towards the baddies. In contrast to flying, the weapons system is ridiculously easy to use, locking on micro-seconds after the chopper hoves into view.
One twitch of the trigger finger and a Hellfire missile transforms my foe into a fountain of digital flames. Score one for Flight Wing Flipside! “You’ve just shot down another Army Apache,” says Captain Pritchard with a worried look in his eye. Whoops.
Suddenly, he’s keen to tell me about the ATTC internal upgrades. “Our latest addition to the system is a Whole World Database,” says Captain Pritchard. “It allows us to run realistic training scenarios with convoys or cordon and search, literally anywhere in the world.” A map of Helmand province in Afghanistan flashes up on a screen.
Seeing a dusty landscape familiar from news reports brings it all home. The ACTT and Lynx simulators may feel like amazing video games to me, but they’re potential life-savers for the pilots who train with them. “Ultimately, the ACTT helps our guys make decisions quicker than the enemy,” says Captain Pritchard proudly, “Our Apaches in the field have taken lots of damage but we’ve had no losses so far.”
The Lynx simulator has been similarly useful, according to Ken Bailey. “In the 1980s, we had around five Lynx crashes a year. Now that we can practice emergency drills here, we’re down to about one every 18 months.”
So there you have it – playing computer games can save your life. That’s one to remember the next you’re getting grief for trying to beat your PB in Gran Turismo 5…
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Home on the range
Don’t worry if you haven’t got millions of pounds to blow on a full-scale simulator, says Captain Anthony Arnott: “As everyone spends more time on PlayStations, game-savvy recruits are getting better at our computerised selection tests.” Check out these games to sharpen your flying skills.
Battlefield 2: Modern Combat
Xbox 360, £25
Don’t be put off by the UK disappearing inside a ‘European Union’ force in this multi-player combat sim, as it also includes the latest military vehicles and plenty of adrenaline-pumping action. For the biggest battles, venture on online with Xbox Live to fight massive 24-player games. Just beware friendly fire from anyone who sounds like me.
Microsoft Flight Simulator X (Deluxe Edition)
All the Army pilots we spoke to recommended Microsoft’s flight sim for its unparalleled accuracy. This latest version has 21 detailed airports, 38 detailed cities and 65 structured missions. Its 22 different aircraft include micro-lights, seaplanes, jumbo jets and – naturally - helicopters.
Earning your wings
The Army Air Corps is smaller than the Royal Air Force, but offers a quicker route to command – plus a few lucky pilots get the chance to fly the Apache. The traditional route of entry is after university, although some pilots join at 18 and work their way up. You’ll need good (though not perfect) eyesight and watch those pies, as aircraft ejection seats only work on recruits weighing under 97kg.
The selection process is rigorous, starting with medical and computer tests before moving on to a three-week flying course to see if you’re made of the right stuff for aviation. This is followed by a spell of officer training at Sandhurst, and finally a 62-week flying course that includes survival training and nearly 200 hours of flying fixed-wing aircraft as well as helicopters. You can find out more at www.armyjobs.mod.uk
The multi-million pound Lynx helicopter simulator may be one of the biggest, best and most expensive sims in the world, but it’s far from the craziest. Welcome to the wild and wacky world of high tech simulation.
Racewood Mk8 £14,550
Did you know Charlotte Church is allergic to horses? In her recent advert for Walker Crisps with Gary Lineker, the Welsh singer rode one of Racewood’s cyber-steeds instead of a real-life nag. Their Mk8 racehorse simulator replicates a horse galloping at full speed and has sensors for jockeys to check that they’re sitting in saddle correctly and even whipping in the right place! Ouch.
AllStar Ace 5000 Baseball Pitcher £10,000
Homesick Yanks can practice their favourite Rounders rip-off game with the help of this video pitching system. Watch the life-size video screen and when the pitcher’s hand whips round, the Ace 5000 fires a baseball right at you. It can deliver fastballs, curves and sliders (whatever they might be) from both left- and right-handed virtual pitchers.
F1 Showcar Pitstop Challenger £24,000
This full-size replica of a 2007 season Formula 1 racer is made from fibreglass composite and houses a PC-based race simulator, force-feedback steering wheel and LCD screen. If that isn’t real enough for you, each of the four wheels can be replaced using electric impact wrenches and trolley jacks for a completely authentic pit-stop experience. There’s even a fake petrol pump rig so you can pretend to refuel!
Densha De Go! £50
Currently (and probably only ever) available in Japan, this train simulator for the Nintendo Wii comes with two handles, lots of button and a speedometer – although there’s no report whether it comes with a ‘permanently delayed’ setting for UK trains. You get extra points for keeping to the timetable and driving smoothly. Seriously.
Full Swing £23,000
Dust off your mashy niblet and get swinging inside this 20ft-long self-contained simulator. Bash the ball at the video screen and the simulator calculate its speed, flight and angle – depending on the weather conditions you’ve chosen. The Simulator comes with 12 3D courses (including St Andrews) pre-loaded, and you can buy 12 more courses for another £1000.
Technohunt 300 £15,000
Make like Robin Hood in this rather blood-thirsty archery simulator. Advanced tracking sensors pick up the trajectories of special ‘safety’ arrows as you stalk a variety of harmless woodland creatures. A Pentium-powered PC controls the lot, and you get no less than three discs of animals to hunt. We’re still waiting for the Sheriff of Nottingham expansion pack.
Quite simply the best idea to come out of Japan – ever. Popping bubble wrap is one of life’s great pleasures but having to buy a new telly every time you want a go quicky gets rather expensive. Cue the PuchiPuchi, a pocket-sized gadget that simulates the feel and sound of popping bubble wrap – and lasts forever (or at least until its battery fades).
D-Box Quest £3000
Ever wanted to really get inside your favourite movie? The Quest is a big fat armchair with a built-in two-axis simulator that synchronises its motions with your DVD (or Blu-ray) player. When the Fast and Furious cars on screen swerve right, you swerve with them, and when the Poseidon Adventure boat sinks, you’d better reach for the sick bag. Not all films have codes for them – and remember to turn it off when eating your dinner in front of the telly!