Marines Make Virtual Training Reality for Naval Aviators
Story by LT Michelle Tucker on 05/18/2019
The dream of becoming jet pilots was almost within their reach. Self-confessed mechanical engineering geeks, the Occhipinti brothers commissioned as second lieutenants in the United States Marine Corps in 2013. What they didn’t know was how challenging the training would be and how success or failure would hang in the balance. They knew they had to make changes and fast.
By October 2017, the Occhipinti brothers were on the verge of flunking out of the Intermediate phase of flight school. Determined to succeed, they got to work and after moving to the Advanced phase of jet training, they built a system that would not only save their careers, but would help their classmates and future students too. Their story is emblematic of perseverance and ingenuity, and a symbol of today’s Navy, one in which junior personnel play a vital role in identifying and addressing a broad range of issues.
“I was amazed,” Chief of Naval Air Training Rear Adm. Greg Harris said during an interview. “It’s innovation from within Naval Aviation and from within our students. When we start letting students help us understand how they are learning differently, instead of us dictating how we think they’re going to learn, we are better off.”
Harris is responsible for all naval aviator, naval flight officer, and naval aircrewman training for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard across five air wings and 17 squadrons in Texas, Florida, and Mississippi.
The roots of the Occhipintis’ success go back more than two decades. With a model F-14 Tomcat jet in hand, 4-year old Matteo Occhipinti stepped foot on American soil for the first time in 1996. He and his identical twin brother, Andy, had just immigrated to Long Island, New York, with their parents. American born, their mother, Concettina, had travelled to Sicily, Italy, for a three-month college foreign exchange program. That three months ended up lasting 10 years after she met and fell in love with her husband, Alessandro. The couple had Matteo and Andy in 1991. The brothers had no idea what excitement their future in the U.S. held, but something about that toy airplane struck a chord as they began their new adventure.
A stark contrast to the ornate, hilltop city of Ragusa, Sicily, the Occhipinti family soon moved to Crystal Lake, Illinois, just 45 miles northwest of Chicago. There, the brothers grew up playing sports and competing with each other as siblings do. Two peas in a pod and eager to serve the nation, at age 16 they enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program (DEP) an accession program for qualified individuals to enlist in the military. After some research however, they got hooked on the idea of becoming Marine Corps pilots and thus, their aviation dream began.
Matteo studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago while Andy studied at Illinois Institute of Technology. Athletic in build and standing at 5 foot, 11 inches, they were a mirror image of each other. They had a classic Italian-American look and an air of confidence about them. Calculated individuals, they had a plan to succeed. They did everything they could wrestling, volunteering, leadership roles, and of course study to make their officer applications competitive. It was that competitive nature, positive mindset, and their unwavering drive to succeed that would tip the balance in their favor down the line.
After graduating from The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, where all newly commissioned U.S. Marine Corps officers are taught the basics of being an “Officer of Marines,” the Occhipinti brothers reported to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, for Introductory Flight Screening (IFS). IFS is a fast-paced course designed to provide initial flight screening to ensure students are aeronautically adaptable. It includes ground school and a flying portion. Airborne and in control for the first time, Matteo and Andy completed their first flights in a Cessna 172 from Pensacola International Airport.
“It was absolutely awesome,” Matteo said. “There were these two cloud banks and we were doing circles in between them. It was mesmerizing being up there and seeing the sun, realizing this is going to be my job if I get this all done. I was really excited about it.”
Following IFS, students advance to Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API), during which student naval aviators (SNAs) study subjects including aerodynamics, weather, aircraft engines and systems, navigation, and flight rules and regulations.
Feeling the part
It was Friday, but it wasn’t just any Friday. Friday of the last week of API was special. Matteo stepped into his new, sage green flight suit for the first time. Crisp and complete with name patches, putting it on for the first time was like a ritual. It was a rite of passage he’ll never forget.
“It was the first time we got to feel just a little like military pilots,” Matteo said with a smile. “They felt stiff, but they were a lot more comfortable than cammies and our Bravos and Charlies that we normally wore on Friday.”
Matteo and Andy left Pensacola and reported to NAS Whiting Field, Florida, for Primary flight training, the next phase in the pipeline. There, they took to the air in orange-and-white painted Beechcraft T-6B Texan II single-engine turboprop trainer aircraft an ejection-seat equipped aircraft that requires a G-suit to help circulate blood back to the heart during high gravity force maneuvers in flight. Everything was falling into place. The Occhipintis graduated and both selected the Strike training pipeline, leading them down the path to fly jets.
They reported for Intermediate jet training at NAS Meridian, Mississippi, one of two locations for the Strike pipeline. It was their first introduction to the McDonnell Douglas T-45C Goshawk jet trainer aircraft. Sleek and with the look of a compact fighter jet, the T-45C is just 39 feet in length. It has a top speed of around 645 mph and it packs a punch. Matteo and Andy were excited and ready to step up to the next level, but after a series of delayed training events (the result of an operational pause), that punch hit them square in the gut. Almost at the end of the Intermediate phase, the senior Marine on staff told them their student Navy Standardization Scores (NSS) were below the cutoff. They were at risk of being dropped from training, their dreams crushed. They had to make changes.
“Initially it was a big shock,” Matteo said. “But we thought, the past is the past, there’s nothing we can do to change that. The grades are what they are, but what we can do is take full responsibility and move forward with a game plan that’s going to address every single shortfall we’ve had and prove to you [the instructors] that we deserve to be here.'”
They immediately set to work analyzing their performance. Together, Matteo and Andy reviewed and categorized more than 600 grade sheet comments the good, the bad, and the ugly. The found their shortfalls and studied together as a team. They concluded they needed to improve their study habits and if there was anything else that could help, they’d do it.
“We’re competitive but we’re best friends,” said Matteo. “Any time he messes something up I’m always giving him crap for it; any time I mess something up he’s giving me crap for it. But at the end of the day we’re always trying to make each other better. We’re study buddies.”
Focused and determined, the Occhipintis made it through Intermediate and moved on to Advanced jet training. Falling short was not an option and they wanted to find a way to get the competitive edge they’d been so accustomed to growing up. That’s when they sought the help of a former student who had used a virtual reality (VR) device to supplement training.
“There were things that we couldn’t practice without actually flying,” Matteo said. “We wanted to see the sight picture, gain the knowledge, practice what we were going to do in the actual jet, and get the repetitions we needed.”
While flight simulators actually simulate a whole flight, VR training devices focus on either one specific skill area or a group of areas. The problem with the existing flight simulators was that they couldn’t accommodate multi-aircraft mission profiles or allow the student a 360-degree field of view. Seeing and communicating with other aircraft that may be directly behind a pilot is a critical part of tactical formation (TACFORM), basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) known as dogfighting, section engaged maneuvering (SEM), road reconnaissance (RR), and section low-level flight procedures. A VR training device with multi-aircraft link capability could help bridge that sight-picture gap from the ground, enabling students to gain experience in a safe environment prior to ever taking flight in a real aircraft.
They set up in the corner of a classroom. Two black computer towers on a desk with two monitors positioned in front of them. Beside the desk, an old, five-wheeled office chair. The blue, fabric-covered seat had a rectangle hole cut out at the front creating a fat, U-shaped seat revealing the gray foam pad beneath. It was the perfect spot for the joy stick or HOTAS (hands on throttle-and-stick), which was carefully screwed into place. On the floor lay the rudder pedals to assist with coordinated flight around the vertical axis of the virtual aircraft. The throttle panel was positioned to the left, just as it would be in a T-45C. The VR goggles looked like squared off and blacked out ski goggles with a strap over the top. They housed the display that would transport the viewer into the virtual cockpit and into the sky. In all, the system cost the brothers approximately $6,000 to build. It was far from perfect, but it didn’t need to be.
Matteo and Andy built the physical system but needed a little help to get the software to display a more realistic picture of the cockpit and outside scenery. Enter U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Jason Bruno. Bruno arrived at NAS Meridian at the same time as the Occhipinti brothers. Another mechanical engineering major, the three immediately hit it off.
“They knew I was really into computer programming,” Bruno said. “It started out with programing the air-to-air TACAN (tactical air navigation system), which shows your distance from each other if you’re linked up with another plane. I just started opening up the files and changing a few things to make them work.”
What started off as a few minor changes led to a complete overhaul of the avionics programming. Bruno also created graphics that mirrored the T-45C cockpit. The heads-up display, switches, lights everything had a place. Quickly knowing where to glance to read instruments, much like driving a car, can help students remain focused on tasks outside the aircraft.
The Occhipintis’ VR device was capable of linking up to eight aircraft together at a time and even included a tool that tracked aircraft position, air speed, altitude, and more. It recorded exactly how maneuvers were executed and identified corrections needed, but most importantly, it was debriefable.
Being able to chair fly a mission with a VR training device on the ground provided a huge advantage. Not only did it improve the Occhipintis’ scores in the air, but after sharing the device with classmates, all the students’ NSSs improved. According to training data for the class, scores improved by approximately 8.5% for SEM and 22% for RR flights. In fact, the brothers’ VR trainer device proved so effective that the class completed the last phase of training with zero unsatisfactory flights among the group, something that rarely happens.
Executing training flights, known as “student Xs” with no re-flies translates to accelerated student learning and the potential to advance to a higher competency level in the same period of time. It also puts fewer flight hours on the aircraft to achieve the same results. While not the ultimate goal, reduced hours to train preserves the life of the aircraft, decreases fuel costs, and ultimately increases the number of students that can complete flights between scheduled aircraft maintenance intervals. That’s huge at a time when the Navy and Marine Corps have a shortage of fleet aviators.
Boosting Future Readiness
Impressed with the VR device, instructor pilots, along with squadron and wing-level leadership, saw an opportunity for the trio to present their idea to Harris during a scheduled trip to Meridian.
“It was definitely a little bit of backyard engineering,” Harris said. “But when I sat down and flew, the very first thing that I wanted to do was fight BFM (basic fighter maneuvers) and it was fun.”
According to Wil Merkel, CNATRA’s simulator requirements officer, making training fun is one of many important considerations.
“If someone is interested, enjoys, and is learning in an area, they’re going to want to spend more time in that, and they’re going to advance faster,” Merkel said. “We’re talking about a revolution in training. A complete revamping of the way we’ve always looked at how training should be accomplished. We’re dealing with a young generation of students who, from the age of 1 or 2 years old, have had a tablet or some kind of device in their hand. They’ve learned how to touch buttons, manipulate screens, and are very comfortable picking up different types of controllers.”
The baseline has shifted and although VR trainers will never replace real flight experience, they can help prepare students so that when they step inside a flight simulator or aircraft, the time spent is much more effective.
Acquisition of new military gear can be a lengthy process, but Harris said he saw great value in the Occhipintis’ VR trainer and tasked his staff to procure a robust setup that would withstand the rigors of multiple student use.
In April 2018, the Air Force launched the Pilot Training Next (PTN) program, which uses current and emerging technologies to accelerate pilot training. Collaborating with PTN program developers and an Army acquisition program, and considering the Occhipinti brothers’ system, CNATRA staff procured new VR trainer devices within just 90 days. Complete with spare parts, tech support, and cyber security, etc., each unit had a price tag of approximately $20,000, Merkel said.
Now there are four T-45 VR trainer devices available to students at Training Air Wing 1 at NAS Meridian, Mississippi, four at Training Air Wing 2 at NAS Kingsville, Texas; also six T-6 VR trainer devices at Training Air Wing 5 at NAS Whiting Field, Florida, and four at Training Air Wing 4 at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. Following Harris’ direction for Primary and jet training, CNATRA’s simulator requirements team is currently working to procure similar VR trainer devices for rotary-wing and multi-engine aircraft platforms as well. Merkel said he expects rotary wing VR trainers to be placed in service sometime in early fiscal year 2020.
While VR training is not a graded element of the training pipeline, it offers a cost-effective supplemental training opportunity for motivated students. Reducing the time to train, or increasing aviator skill level in the same time period, could result in aviators who either arrive in the fleet sooner, or at a more advanced level, and that’s a win.
The Occhipinti brothers continue to excel in their aviation careers. Andy is assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101 in Miramar, California, where he flies the F/A-18C Hornet. Matteo is assigned to VMFAT-501 in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he flies the F-35B Lightning II.
“No one gets through training by themselves,” Matteo said. “If you’re good at certain syllabus events, teach others. The one who struggles, but works their ass off, will be there to help when you don’t know the answers. Those bonds last a lifetime, and it all starts in flight school.”