By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith, National Guard BureauMarch 7, 2019
FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. -- A UH-60 Black Hawk unsteadily hovers over the landing deck of a swaying ship in rough seas. Buffeted by the wind, the Black Hawk slowly descends to its target. Though the rainy and windy weather is not letting up, Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Ulsh, who is piloting the aircraft, skillfully plants the helicopter on the rolling and pitching deck.
Minutes later, Ulsh is piloting through low-level passes in desert terrain, and expertly maneuvers away from sporadic ground threats below.
It's a remarkable feat, given that he is operating from central Pennsylvania.
But it's all possible with flight simulators at the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site -- a Pennsylvania Army National Guard-operated schoolhouse where Ulsh is an instructor pilot.
"It's not just simulator databases for here in Pennsylvania," said Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard Jones, another instructor pilot at the training site. "We can put our pilots in the environmental parameters of [places like] Afghanistan so they can use learned tactics, techniques and procedures in that theater of operations."
National Guard missions -- ranging from natural disaster response to operating in overseas locations -- makes the use of simulators all the more critical in building and maintaining proficiency levels of helicopter pilots and crews, he added.
"National Guard [aviation] has a unique mission," said Ulsh. "So, we have to be the Jack-of-all-trades because we have to support the state mission and also deploy overseas."
Ulsh said those missions could include inserting infantry Soldiers into combat areas, sling-load operations to ferry cargo and supplies and even, at times, shipboard landings.
Using simulators provides cost savings in training for those missions.
Jones said there is a cost avoidance of more than $50 million "if you took the simulator hours we flew last year in all the devices across the spectrum and compared it to what it would cost to provide that in an aircraft."
While cost savings and realistic training scenarios are essential benefits of the simulators, Ulsh said that because aviation is "inherently a dangerous business," increased safety is one of the most significant benefits, especially for new, inexperienced pilots who can sometimes focus on a helicopter's instrument panels instead of the outside surroundings.
"If I was flying and I hadn't had a simulator to practice on, I am going to be tempted to go 'heads down' in my flight management systems looking for information," he said, "And that could be a dangerous situation."
Ultimately, he said, the simulators allow for an instructional pause that won't sacrifice safety or training time.
Established in 1981, EAATS started with a UH-1 Iroquois simulator. Currently, the training center houses seven simulators, to include the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook, and UH-72 Lakota platforms.
The current simulators use computers and visual projections to recreate flight and are considerably more high tech than the first ones used in 1981, which relied on hydraulics to get the sense of aircraft movement.
"The human body mostly uses visual references to orient itself, [and so] our graphics are getting better and the visuals are getting more immersive," he said.
It's not just Army Guard pilots who use the flight simulators at EAATS. The training site is open to those from all Army components as well as foreign military aviators.
"We try to be as hospitable as possible and try to make it as good of an experience as we can because we want them to come back," Ulsh said, adding that EAATS will continue to harness simulator technology to facilitate continued training.
"The more technologically advanced our [helicopter] systems get, the more critical it is for students to get proficient in the simulators," he said. "Our courses are a testament to that."