KEY FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Miss. --
Virtually within minutes, one can step foot off of the ground here at the 186th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) and be transported to an entirely different region of the world. This sounds like a scene out of a sci-fi movie. But here at Key Field, the simulators on the base make this futuristic idea a “virtual reality” (VR).
Currently, there are three different simulators that provide VR training for the 238th Air Support Operations Squadron (ASOS), 248th Air Traffic Control Squadron (ATCS), and the 153rd Air Refueling Squadron (ARS). In years past, the base also housed a KC-135R aircraft simulator that was moved off-station shortly after 2005 with the U.S. Department of Defense’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) decision which reorganized military installations.
The three remaining simulators are saving the Air National Guard money and offering invaluable training opportunities to the guardsmen who use them. In addition, they provide unique VR scenarios for the men and women at Key Field which open up a wide range of experiences that would not otherwise exist due to funding constraints and safety issues.
The newest simulator on the base is the Air National Guard Advanced Joint Terminal Attack Controller Training System (AAJTS) used by the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) specialists with the 238th ASOS.
“The AAJTS builds almost a 360 degree picture of the battlefield. So, you can look left and right, up and down, and you’re more immersed in the situation,” Tech. Sgt. Aubrey Pogue, JTAC with the 238th ASOS, said. “You can see the enemy advancing at different angles, and you can see aircraft coming in. You can assess if he is pointing right at you, or if he’s offset. It really helps with the situational awareness of the entire battlefield.”
“We have currencies every six months to keep our proficiency up,” Tech. Sgt. Kole Nail, a JTAC with the 238th ASOS, said. “The sim adds to what we can count as currencies. Before, we had just a t.v. screen simulator. With this one, you can get your night currencies, and your type one currencies where you have to visually acquire the aircraft.”
JTACs are the Air National Guard’s battlefield Airmen who imbed with other military service branches and call in air strikes down range in enemy territory. So, it’s challenging and imperative that they train in a variety of realistic environments.
“It really helps out with the efficiency of not having enough pilots Air Force-wide,” Kole said. And, it helps with the budget constraints of having to get personnel to a range, to fly an aircraft burning fuel, to drop munitions. So, this saves money and eases the burden across the board to be able to check off those training blocks using the simulator.”
In addition to the AAJTS simulator, the base is home to the Tower Simulator System (TSS) used by the 248th ATCS. Guardsmen from the 248th operate the Key Field air traffic control tower, which is utilized not only by the military but also by the Meridian Regional Airport and has a regulated air space responsibility of approximately five miles.
“This is exactly like it will be up in the control tower,” Karl Springer, chief of training and standardization with the 248th, said. “You have each operating position. Here we have local control on the left side which coordinates with aircraft in the air, and ground control on the right side that includes a binocular simulator. Center is flight data which coordinates with other agencies such as air field management. Left communicates with aircraft in the air. Ground control deals with everything on the ground that moves and is not on runways.”
Springer has worked at Key Field since 1994, retiring from the unit in 2007 as military member, and returned as a civilian to run the simulator.
“The simulators here can help you respond by training ahead of time on how to respond to unusual events,” Springer said. “They’re fully day and night capable with visibility variances. Weather, storms and snow can have an effect. Surface friction can be reduced which makes pilots respond differently. This system can simulate that for you, so you can know about all those unusual events.”
The 153rd ARS also reaps the benefits of having an on-station training simulator, the boom operator simulator system (BOSS). The BOSS replicates the boom pod of the KC-135R tanker and allows boom operators to practice air-to-air refueling of numerous types aircraft. In fact, the 186th ARW is lauded as the first in the Air National Guard to receive this system in April of 2014. To date, every wing in the ANG has their own BOSS.
“With the BOSS, we can train new members or seasoned members that haven’t done certain types of refueling like MPRS or multipoint refueling system which are wing tip pods that have a basket,” Tim Garrison, a boom operator with the 153rd ARS, said. “We can train them right here or give refresher training. Because our planes don’t have MPRS, it’s not something we do all the time.”
Training boom operators to do their jobs on the BOSS, leads one to the obvious – tanker pilots also have currency requirements that a simulator can provide safely and affordably. Pilots use the KC-135 Aircrew Training Simulator (ATS) to stay current on their training requirements. Yet, it’s the one simulator that’s missing here at Key Field.
“Simulators are an issue, because right now we do not have one,” Lt. Col. Sam Degeneres, a KC-135 pilot with the 153rd ARS, said. “We used to go to Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana, but they’re going through a conversion. So, now we’re dependent upon other simulators having openings for aircrew.”
Aircrew members travel to wherever there is an opening for simulator training which is costly and time consuming.
“We need to have a simulator that’s close and accessible,” Degeneres said. “It’s a lot easier to get in a simulator than in the airplane for training purposes. Right now, we’re sending people to Scott Air Force Base (AFB) in Illinois, Altus AFB in Oklahoma, and a few are going to March AFB in California.”
With aircraft availability, deployments and operations tempo, resources are limited in keeping crews trained on-station. Having a KC-135 simulator here would alleviate these issues. Former wing commander of the 186th ARW, Brig. Gen. Mike Nabors, was at the base during the years that the KC-135 ATS was located at Key Field.
“Obviously, we’re the cheapest location,” Nabors said. “That’s been argued several times in different studies. The fact is, we’re the only location in the country that has a building that was built specifically for this simulator. It is the model building for all other buildings in the Air National Guard and active duty Air Force.”
The KC-135 ATS building housed the simulator for 17 years and sits empty today.
“The fact that they would potentially build another building with a cost of $7 million plus by the last estimate I saw, when they have a building sitting vacant to house a sim, makes us the cheapest location,” Nabors said. “Plus, we’re used to folks coming here for training. We were able to work that process flawlessly in the past.
Looking in the future, the new KC-46 Pegasus will be the primary aircraft for active duty air-to-air refueling, and all KC-135s will be primarily operated by the ANG, Nabors said.
“At some point, the active duty will want to vest the training for KC-46 platform at Altus AFB,” Nabors said. “Once that happens, we’d be a plausible candidate to provide KC-135 training to the ANG and foreign military partners. But without the sim, we won’t be able to provide that training. This means we’re off the table for any future training missions.”
Not only can Key Field benefit by having the KC-135 ATS return, but the community benefits as well.
“Having the sim here will bring anywhere from four to six pilots a week into Key Field who will stay on the local economy,” Nabors said. “That could be 100 plus people a month coming to Meridian to train. Without the simulator, we can’t compete for any of that.”
The boom operator simulator is built in a way that it can tie into a pilot simulator. With both of those assets tied together, fiber optically they can tie into a training base like Tyndall AFB where a pilot can be in a simulator at Tyndall learning how to fly a fighter, Nabors said.
“We can have a pilot in a simulator here at Key Field, and a boom operator in the boom operator simulator at Key Field,” said Nabors. “They can fly an entire mission, hook up, refuel and train without ever taking off the ground and without ever spending the money it costs in gas to do so. That is the future. Without a KC-135 simulator in Meridian, then we are passing on that future.”
The 186th ARW’s primary mission is to provide rapid global mobility and agile combat support. The KC-135 tankers augment Air Mobility Command (AMC) for worldwide contingency operations. AMC, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, is one of 10 major Air Force commands. The KC-135R aircraft supports AMC’s mission by keeping other aircraft in the air so they can respond when called upon.