It’s 2.00am over the icy North Sea and the Merlin Mk2 crew are in desperate straits. The aircraft is fast running out of fuel above the treacherous waters. They have two options: either land the helicopter back on the ship deck as it rolls among the violent sea, or plummet into the icy depths. With next-to-no-visibility and seconds ticking away, the crew has little choice but to hand their lives over to the pilot and pray they make it home.
Thankfully, it’s just a simulation. At the Royal Naval Air Stations of Culdrose and Yeovilton, this is the sort of scenario played out on repeat for crew members. Rather than ship decks and ocean waters, students are honing their abilities in virtual reality, within futuristic moving domes controlled by their instructors. Life-and-death situations from engine failure to bad weather are all reproduced with photo-realistic effects. “We have to make sure we can operate right at the edge of the envelope,” explains Lieutenant Commander Christopher Luke. “We’re trained to control an aircraft in zero visibility at the dead of night, in choppy waters.”
The Merlin Mk2 patrol chopper and the Wildcat attack helicopter act as the eyes and ears of any maritime operation. Lifting off from the frigate, they travel at speed scouting for enemies across the ocean, before reporting back to the ship. Both aircraft are fitted with an infrared camera and sonobuoys: sonar systems which can be dropped into the sea, acting as underwater radars. If required, the vehicles can also act as the mission’s teeth – the Wildcat is equipped with laser-guided Martlet missiles, while the Merlin carries Sting Ray torpedoes.
Back at RNAS Culdrose, VR is being used to train winchmen in otherwise impossible-to- create scenarios. Paul McBride, who develops the VR content, believes it’s just the beginning. “One day, you could recreate an entire aircraft carrier and then model the whole deck via a game engine. Students could go around a hangar wearing VR headsets being taught by a digital instructor.”
The Merlin Mk2 simulator at RNAS Culdrose, landing on the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. Real missions have varied from counter-narcotic operations in the Carribean, to humanitarian aid in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. The highest demand, however, is in the North Atlantic. “We’re looking for Russian submarine activity,” explains Lieutenant Commander Christopher Luke. “Right now, activity is as high as it was during the Cold War.”
Wildcat simulators at RNAS Yeovilton. The domes move on all axes, translating into realistic effects for trainee pilots. VR developer Paul McBride believes that virtual reality now has the capability to simulate a “black deck” scenario, in which the helicopter is unable to land on the ship and is forced to refuel while hovering in mid-air. He also anticipates that 3D modellers from gaming could be utilised in recreating military environments for real-life training.
Control consoles for the aircrew instructors at RNAS Culdrose. Any conditions or functions, day or night, can be dialled in for the Merlin trainees. McBride believes that the future of Navy training will include 60 students wearing VR headsets, being taught by an instructor appearing as an avatar in an aircraft carrier-sized hangar in real time.
The Merlin Mk2 crew practising winching at sea over a fast moving boat – used for search and rescue missions, medical evacuations and boarding onto submarines.The helicopter’s radar system is visible under the front of the aircraft, and is estimated to be able to detect any moving craft up to around 100 nautical miles. In tandem with a medium-frequency active dipping sonar which can be lowered into the sea, the Merlin acts at the very tip of the anti-submarine warfare platform.
Both the Wildcat and Merlin are fitted with the Wescam MX-15: an electronic optic infrared camera. Integrated into the main turret on the Wildcat, it has two built-in lasers each for range finding and targeting. The device can also be used in search and rescue missions, looking for those lost at sea in the middle of the night. Crews can cycle between thermal imaging and the optical camera on the same screen.
The Wildcat tail. The engine’s exhaust air is purposefully moved up and into the paths of the rotor blade to be dispersed. This helps create a low-heat profile, resulting in harder detection from other forces’ radar weapons systems. The Wildcat also has a passive radar system, which allows the crew to identify frequencies and transmissions from other aircraft.
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