By Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer
182nd Airlift Wing
PEORIA, Ill. (3/7/2013) - At first glance, the virtual reality parachute simulator looks like a giant baby bouncer made of metal, tethers and wires.
However, rather than train babies to stand, this equipment teaches adults to fall.
This model is the latest pursuit to teach military service members how to fluently utilize their parachute systems from the skies to the ground in a sophisticated virtual reality environment.
The 182nd Airlift Wing, in Peoria, Ill., recently installed the unique training system, and is optimistic on the proficiency it will provide that may someday make the difference between life and death.
As described by creator-company Systems Technology, Inc., the "PARASIM Virtual Reality Parachute Simulator is the safe, efficient, and cost-effective solution to parachute training for airborne premeditated static-line and free-fall (sic) operations and for aircrew emergency bailout and ejection. PARASIM combines 3D virtual reality with validated parachute dynamics and realistic, instrumented controls, letting jumpers hone their skills on the ground before they ever take to the air."
Master Sgt. Chris Murphy of the 169th Airlift Squadron Aircrew Flight Equipment walked me through the purpose the simulator serves. "It's a virtual reality parachute trainer. It does a couple different kinds of training," he explained. "We have it set up for (an) emergency BA-22 back style parachute, which is what we have on our aircraft, but it will also do parachutes that the PJs would use, or Special Forces."
My experience with the simulator started by being strapped into a parachute rig hanging from the motorized frame while donning the virtual reality goggles mounted on a traditional flight helmet. My simulation was a pre-mediated fall, which meant free falling for a certain amount of time before deploying the parachute.
The frame lifted my legs until my body was suspended horizontally several feet above the ground to simulate a spread eagle free fall position. The simulation goggles activated and I found myself free falling from several thousand feet in the dead of night with a night vision goggles configuration.
About half way down I could begin to see familiar shapes of the United States Air Force Academy Fighting Falcons football stadium in Colorado. I pulled the D-ring for my primary parachute to deploy, and nothing happened.
"Pull your reserves!" Master Sgt. Murphy called out. The simulation had programmed a primary parachute malfunction in which I would have to react to avoid a lethal plummet to the ground. After frantically pulling every backup cord I could find, an emergency parachute deployed, causing the simulator to swing me back upright. Then I was able to navigate my way around the skies of Colorado Springs by operating the parachute's toggle cords. As I unceremoniously missed my target and descended somewhere into the Air Force Academy campus, the simulator released me to the floor, simulating the feeling impact of a landing.
The experience is not limited to the confines of the aircrew flight equipment room. One unique aspect of the parachute trainer is that it can be networked with a large number of other simulator units at other bases around the world through the Internet in a manner similar to online networked videogames.
Aircrews from thousands of miles away can be joined in the virtual skies to practice the dynamics of group jumping. Accordingly, the simulator console operators can program in malfunctions that could happen in real-world scenarios, such as a primary parachute not deploying upon command.
Several different terrains and daylight scenarios can be chosen, adding to the versatility of the simulation. "This enhances the training, and makes it more realistic, otherwise they don't get this type of training. It's just basically classroom, book, and that's it...As compared to this, your chances of surviving safely are greatly increased...It's obviously better to do it here than it is to do it in real life," Master Sgt. Murphy said.