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Simulating flight, saving dollars
U.S. military chooses off-the-rack software to train Navy pilots
By Andrew Glassman
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas, Feb. 7 - The Pentagon, frequently criticized for outlandish spending - remember the $600 hammer - says they've stumbled onto a remarkably cheap way to improve America's defenses. The U.S. Navy is using video games bought off the rack at computer stores to train pilots. For the military, it's a way to save millions; for the gaming companies, it's a scramble to get their games endorsed by the top guns.
HIS SUPERIORS COULDN'T figure it out: How could Navy pilot-in-training Lt. j.g. Herb Lacey earn perfect scores on his first flights in the cockpit of a T-34 trainer when he had never been in a cockpit before?
The answer - video games - and a flight simulator Microsoft sells for around $50 off the shelf.
"I'd used the software so much that I was able to practice my procedures and get familiar with the area before I stepped into the cockpit for the first time," said Lacey.
When simulated by Microsoft's program, the view of the Corpus Christi, Texas, naval air station from the air looks remarkably similar to the perspective Lacey would have during a real-life flight.
"I was amazed at what I saw," said Adm. Mike Bucchi, chief of naval air training.
After seeing the game for himself, the admiral set up an experiment - a lab where Navy trainees can practice in their spare time. The results: 54 percent more students scored above average in their training.
"This is a great tool for us to use to help our students learn what they need to know at a quicker, faster pace," Bucchi said. Impressed with the results from his test, Bucchi is making the games a permanent part of the curriculum - recruits are given a CD to take home and play with. "Eventually we will have everything on a server, so students can log in from home or on the road on the Internet and keep current," said Capt. Jim Droody, a naval flight instructor.
QUICKER ROUTE FROM STREET TO FLEET
'We don't anticipate the level of fidelity is going to get high enough to actually compromise national security.'
- SCOTT DUNLAP
Navy simulations manager Video games will never take the place of a real simulator - and they won't replace the student pilots' time in the air - but after six months of trying them out the Navy feels the games can improve safety and save money. Higher test scores means fewer flights overhead, which translates into less money spent on lessons repeated, pilots completing the course faster and a quicker transformation, as the Navy says, "from the street to the fleet."
The cost factor is hard to miss. Full simulators costs millions or tens of millions of dollars. A gaming workstation, with throttles and sticks bought over the counter at the local computer store? About $8,000.
Flight simulator games are always among the top five titles on the software industry's best-seller lists, and in 1999 the top five simulators accounted for roughly $60 million in sales.
Though Microsoft appears to be in the pilots' seat right now, the military will be testing out a variety of products, and the competition is on for companies who want to claim their game has the right stuff for the military.
(Microsoft is a partner in the joint venture that operates MSNBC.)
"People say, 'Well, is this realistic? Is this what it's really like to fly an airplane? Can I actually learn some useful skills doing something like this?' " said Bruce Williams, who helps develop Microsoft's Flight Simulator. "It really helps that message and we certainly hope to go forward with that."
A naval strategy game by Electronic Arts has just been adopted for use at the U.S. Naval Academy, and the next step will be to create multiplayer games - with students flying head to head, much the way game players can compete on the Internet already.
But are the games getting too detailed and realistic? Companies like GreyStone Digital, who have government contracts to make simulation software, are now also making games.
"It has scared some people that the information is out there and widely available, and that's raised some people's eyebrows, but we don't anticipate the level of fidelity is going to get high enough to actually compromise national security," said Scott Dunlap, a Navy simulation program manager.
Indeed, gaming companies say they have been approached by the Pentagon, which is now interested in using video games as recruiting tools.
Without proper training, these games can reinforce bad flying habits. But Bucchi, whose training 30 years ago required visualizing a cockpit in his mind ("You would basically shut your eyes, reach out, pretend you were grabbing a stick," he admitted), believes the results are overwhelming - as he trains a new generation of pilots like Lacey, pilots with a natural feel for the stick because they grew up flying at the controls of a PC.
[This message has been edited by JG2_FireCat! (edited 02-07-2000).]