Article: Air Combat Maneuvering Simulators

Editor's Note: At the time I flew the simulators, in 1992, even the USAF knew their technology was well behind the best video game standards. But it worked and it worked well. Today, they have upgraded their simulators and incorporated all they've learned both in computer stuff but from various real world engagements such as the Gulf War. Still, flying these simulators was one of the most exciting things I've ever done, which includes some pretty hairy mock dog fights in real airplanes. Enjoy.

Each dome has a combatant with his own fighter inserted in it. Each of the flats is a CRT which creates a faceted sky inside, but you don't even notice it. Once you've boarded your F-15 or F-16 (as on left) and it is slid into the dome, believe me, it's as real as it gets.

USAF Air Combat Simulator
Nintendo Would Kill for This One!

I've just had an experience so intense and so exciting I don't know where to start.

Part of the experience has to do with my first brush with "Virtual Reality", although I hate that term because it has become such a cloying media buzz word. However, let me tell the world, virtual reality, or something similar, absolutely does exist and it is one of the prime ingredients of the Air Force's ACM (Air Combat Maneuvering) simulator at Luke AFB in Phoenix. This thing does a number on your head you wouldn't believe!

The entire TAC/ACES computerized dog fighting concept is brilliant. And obvious. It is the result of lessons learned the hard way. There was time the brass hats in Washington thought dog fighting was a thing of the past. Airplanes were too fast. Missiles too deadly. Airplane's wouldn't need machine guns. Just Sidewinders.

Enter Viet Nam and those guys in the old fashioned MiG-17s and -19s. They could honk around into your face in a heart beat and they had cannons. Guns. Those things that make noise and smoke. Those things the brass said Phantoms didn't need because they were so high tech. Wrong!

We learned our lessons and out of Viet Nam came fighter schools which taught down and dirty dog fighting. Then computers like that at Luke AFB joined the fray and the power of the microprocessor was harnessed and brought to the complex problem of fighter engagements.

It has often been said that warfare always comes down to a single eventuality; one guy with a gun shooting at another guy with a gun. And so it is with air to air combat. High technology or not, sooner or later the fight comes down to subsonic, yank and bank affairs where the name of the game is knowing how to manage the energy your airplane possesses so as to trade that energy for position on your adversary.

Mostly it is tactics, tactics and more tactics.

A problem in teaching tactics at 500 mph in an F-15 or F-16 is that everything happens so fast it is nearly impossible to point out exactly what was done wrong and how to make it right.

Enter the computer. ACM simulators let the instructors set a pilot up to fight any number of bad guys located in any position. They can freeze the machine, talk to the student, back up the tape to show what was done wrong and then do it over until its right. Then, when the fighter-pilot-to-be gets into the air, he at least has a good idea of the tactics required. It also saves bunches of fuel.

A lot of those tactical lessons are learned by reviewing the instructor's screens which are in the control room next to the domes. The screens show the fight as it is seen through the HUDs of both airplanes, as well as giving the instructor the ability to watch a little red airplane chasing a little blue one from any angle he wants. When the fight is over, the pilots can sit at the consoles and actually watch the fight they just flew.

Alright, that's it for the boring stuff! I've done my bit as a reporter, now let's talk airplanes!

Let me set the stage for a second: In the first place, this isn't one of those gee whiz simulators on stilts that threatens to walk across the room while the pilot is dorking around inside. This simulator consists of two geodesic domes in which each facet of the inside of the dome is a CRT screen. A pilot sits in each dome, strapped into a simulated cockpit and fights the other guy projected on his dome. The cockpit just sits there. It doesn't move, it doesn't jump. It doesn't reach up and grab you where you don't want to be grabbed. It just sits there. The horsey ride outside Safeway has more movement and apparent excitement.

Lt. Col. "Slick" Agguire (since retired) checked me out in the F-15 cockpit and he was chuckling as he spoke to me. I now know why. He knew I wasn't taking this thing seriously and was about it get it in the shorts.

Heads Up Display (HUD) with all the gun sight graphics which includes speed, rounds of ammunition left, G's being pulled, altitude, and all the rest of the stuff you need to know. The MiG looks good in this position, but even if I pull the trigger I won't get him because I'm not pulling enough lead. If you could see the gun pipper, you'd see it was well behind the airplane and I had to move it to have the lead required for the bullets


The hardest part about getting to know the F-15 is remembering what button or switch does what. There were maybe eight buttons and switches on the stick and a similar number on the dual throttles. Besides triggers for the Gatling gun, the radar could be switched to super-search mode, guns could be selected and missiles put into the circuit and a bunch of other things I didn't absorb. Since this was primarily a gun fight, I wanted to understand all the stuff being displayed on the Heads Up Display (HUD) in front of me. I'd seen lots of pictures in movies shot through HUD gun sights, but until that moment didn't understand any of it.

Among other things, the HUD gives a graphic display of a lot of the things the instrument panel would tell you if you had time to look at it. Since you're busy trying to save your butt, they've put important information like your speed, altitude, the G's you're pulling, whether you have guns selected or missiles, ammunition remaining, etc. in the HUD so you don't have to go looking for it. I was mostly concerned about not making a complete fool out of myself so I worked hardest at understanding the radar and actual gun sight portion of the HUD.

The actual gun sight is nothing more than a little "pipper" floating around on the HUD. It looks like a computer cursor because basically, that's what it is.

Okay, that's the theory. The reality is a whole lot different. Slick patted me on the head and threw the switch that moved my own private F-15 into the dome. Once inside I felt like I was at 10,000 feet somewhere east of Liberal, Kansas in a stage 9 smog alert. The scenery was Kansas-farm rendered in CRT green. It looked phoney! The entire thing struck me as well below Nintendo's best. I was feeling very smug.

Slick's voice in the headset said, "Okay, do you see Jim out there at three o'clock?"

I obediently turned my head and saw a tiny green airplane on the green horizon with the green sky. Who are they kidding? They teach fighter pilots in this thing? This, I thought at the time, bordered on being silly.

The voice in my headset said, "I'm going to let you go and you're on your own."

I smirked. Yeah, right! Boy, I yawned, I sure am excited. Ho, hum.

The horizon tilted and I knew the airplane was supposed to be flying. I pressured the stick and the horizon moved exactly the way it should. I was annoyed by my inability to quickly adjust to the sensitivity of the ailerons. After all, I'm a Pitts pilot. Right?

I pulled the nose up, moved the ailerons left and watched as the entire green world around me obediently twirled around. Then it was a four point. Then a loop. Because I was in a dome, there was no sensation of watching a computer screen change. When the horizon shifted, it moved all the way around behind me, so even my peripheral vision was getting the movement message. The movement was accurate. The stick inputs and the way the airplane moved was accurate. The stuff going on in the HUD and the instrument panel looked real.

Then something inside of me snapped.

Suddenly, without warning, my mind forgot where it was and hooked up with the microprocessors. I was no longer sitting in a high-tech lawn chair in Arizona. I had stepped across the virtual threshold into a reality all my own.

I looked up, as I pulled over the top of a loop, and spotted Jim engaged in the same sort of foolishness a few miles away. The feeling of adrenaline ramming the excitement-gauge against the stops was almost tangible as I slammed the throttles forward and rolled into him. I pulled hard, putting his airplane on top of the canopy bow in front of me the same way I'd done a thousand times in my Pitts. Keep the lift vector pointing at the other guy and keep pulling. But, keep thinking.

Jim was also thinking. And he was looking too because his outline suddenly swiveled around into a front view and began getting really big, really fast! I instinctively ducked as we blasted past each other in a 1,200 mph head-on pass. That green F-15 couldn't have been more real to me. Bam, I wrapped into a hard left bank as I shoved the throttles through the gates into Zone 5 burner. At that G load, I needed power to keep from burning off too much speed.

I heard myself as I growled "yaaaarrrggg" or whatever that sound is that always squishes out between my gritted teeth when pulling hard G and I'm tightening up my neck and stomach muscles. It hurts and hard dog fighting is guaranteed to produce stiff neck muscles. The head is being constantly twisted around looking for the other guy while pulling G and muscles are being tensed that aren't used to being tensed. The G makes your head heavy but you fight it and push your neck to the limit to get the last degree of twist out of it to keep your target in sight. Lose him and you're a flamer.

The fact I was sitting still and there was no G never occurred to me. My mind felt it, so my body did too.

Apparently Jim had hesitated after flashing past me before starting to yank around because, as I twisted my head back and up, I saw him only part way through the turn. I was way ahead of him in the turn and he knew it. Then he made a serious mistake: he reversed his turn. In less time than it takes to think about it, his image began to track down the top of the canopy and I was able to move him down the windshield until he was in the HUD.

Once he was in that little square piece of glass, the world ceased to exist. The only thing I saw was my gun pipper and his outline. The only thing I heard was the slip stream howling past the canopy and my own labored breathing being piped back into my own ears through the hot mike. My life, for that instant, had become a video game with everything I ever knew about flying and fighting being jammed into the two characters on the glass in front of me. His airplane and the pipper. The pipper and his airplane.

Jim is good. At one point he started a horizontal scissor, yanking his throttles and throwing out the speed brakes in an attempt to get me to overshoot. Something warned me and, as soon as he began getting bigger, I yanked up into a big barrel roll, a "lag roll" the fighters guys call them, to eat up distance, while still maintaining energy and position. I'd used it often in the Pitts. It worked here too.

I could feel the sweat running down my forehead and my mouth was dry from rapidly sucking air in and letting very little back out. Pull, bank, yank. Occasionally I could make the pipper dance across the outline, but I could never get it to stabilize.

Frustrated, I'd pull the trigger convinced I had him. But, I never put a hole in his bird. Then, during one of the frantic moments when the pipper was dancing with Jim's airplane, I heard Slick's voice in the intercom saying "Start numbers, start numbers!" I didn't understand.

I then remembered him saying earlier you had to allow time for the cannon shells to get to the target and, when you saw a firing solution about to occur, get the trigger down before the pipper gets there so the rounds have time to make the trip to the target. It was similar to using a garden hose to knock down a wasp; start hosing when you're close and hose right through his position.

The pipper was heading towards Jim when I pulled the trigger and kept fighting the controls. In a flash, the green outline disappeared and a momentary yellow splotch remained on the imaginary green landscape before me. Then it was gone. The only thing to be heard was a familiar, vaguely befuddled, deep southern voice on the intercom saying, "What happened, the lights just went out?"

The Instructor Pilot said it was one of the longest "groveling matches" he had ever seen. Since neither Jim nor I knew what we were doing, we were perfectly matched. Both of us were Pitts pilots out of our element. This "longest" match lasted a little over five minutes. And left me absolutely exhausted. And ready to barf.

I was eventually treated to nearly three hours of simulator time in bits and pieces and absolutely never outgrew the tremendous admiration I have for the guys who fight for a living. And for our freedom. It's hard work, both physically and mentally. At the same time, I now understand why our country's occasional brushes with bad guys in airplanes turn out the way they do. It looks as if we've learned our lessons in the ACM arena. We carry missiles. We carry guns. But much, much more important, our pilots know how and when, to use each. And much of that is because of the way computer technology has come to the aerial class room.

Oh, by the way, when Nintendo brings out their version, go find your own arcade. This one's taken.

I wonder how many quarters a person can physically carry at one time.?