Role of simulator hailed in preparing pilots for flying new fighter

Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell, the UK's lead test pilot, using a specialist fighter jet simulator at BAE Systems in Warton
Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell, the UK's lead test pilot, using a specialist fighter jet simulator at BAE Systems in Warton

A specialist fighter jet simulator facility, where a cost-saving landing method was developed, is a "critical piece of the puzzle" for pilots preparing for flight trials off HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The £2 million facility built and run by BAE Systems at their site in Warton, Lancashire, enables engineers and pilots to experience flying and landing the F-35B Lightning II from the aircraft carrier.

RAF test pilot Squadron Leader Andy Edgell has been using the simulator, featuring a replica cockpit on a moving platform and domed screens, to train in ahead of the trials next year.

The 37-year-old, when quizzed on the facility's importance, said it is a "critical piece of the puzzle" regarding their preparations.

"This simulator is by far the most realistic simulator that I have ever been in.

"You sometimes forget that it is not real," he told the Press Association.

"Sometimes your heart rate increases on some of the manoeuvres that we are performing, some of the more challenging conditions that we are flying in.

"You genuinely feel as though you are in the real environment. Without the sim... we would be going significantly less prepared.

"It gives us the data, the noughts and the ones, that are required to prove that what we are going to go and do is a sensible thing."

The facility also features an accompanying FLYCO control room, which mirrors the one on the £3 billion warship, and also allows the ship's landing signal officers team to be trained too.

BAE's, David Atkinson, an engineer working on the aircraft to ship integration, said the evidence gathered through their work is "critical" in gaining flight clearance for the trials off the ship.

"It is not just a visual simulation, i.e. pilot flying and getting that visual feedback," he said.

"The touchdown forces and loads, and information about the behaviour of the aircraft is all use able at a very high level."

Costing significantly less compared to real time flying hours, he said that, through flying the jet in the virtual world, they can also factor in poor weather conditions and large ship movements.

They are also able to "exercise all emergencies", which Mr Atkinson said "you would not be able to to test for on the real aircraft, on the real ship".

"It is the place to come to get the best possible representation of the F-35B operating with Queen Elizabeth, until we can do it for real," he added.

Mr Atkinson said a landing technique called a shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) was also developed at the facility.

Sqn Ldr Edgell said it is a "fantastic capability", adding: "We are landing on the back of the carrier whilst moving forwards. It is an interesting challenge."

Not something the Harrier Jump Jet was capable of, he said the F-35 and Queen Elizabeth class carrier together now produce a system where a jet can land with forward speed, without the need for an arresting hook or cable.

"I appreciate it might not be exciting for all, but certainly for testers, test pilots and test engineers, this is experimental stuff, this is fascinating," Sqn Ldr Edgell said of the "incredibly complex and detailed work".

When asked if it is a cost saving technique, Mr Atkinson said the SRVL allows a jet to bring back more weapons when compared to a vertical landing.

"From an operational capability point of view, it means you haven't had to throw away a perfectly serviceable weapon that you could have brought back, reused and taken on the next mission," he added.

With BAE Systems involved in the design, development and production of the jet "since day one", Mr Atkinson said the jets coming together with the aircraft carrier is an exciting prospect.

"It is going to be an impressive day to see it come to the ship," he added.