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Virtual Reality Parachuting

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Virtual Reality Parachuting

A1C Zach Lauritzen hangs from the harness trainer during his "jump." A1C Lauritzen, a KC-135 Stratotanker boom operator, was taking a parachuting refamiliarization class.

Official USAF Photo
Updated March 21, 2005
by Lanorris Askew

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, GA -- When you are plunging toward earth at speeds as fast as 20 feet per second there is not a lot of time to think about your next course of action. Dave Dawson makes sure his students don’t have to.

As the 19th Air Refueling Group’s aircrew continuation training specialist, he uses a device called the Virtual Reality Hanging Harness Trainer to give students a semi-realistic parachuting scenario.

“We refamiliarize or reteach aircrew members (every three years) what they were taught during initial aircrew training,” Mr. Dawson said.

The course is divided into two parts. The first portion is classroom instruction, where students review procedures to properly wear parachutes and survival equipment. They also go over the steps to get safely from the aircraft to the ground, and survival techniques after they land.

Following that, the students step into the world of virtual reality when they are strapped into a hanging harness dressed in complete survival gear.

The simulator allows them to hang from the harness just a few inches from the ground while experiencing the feel of a 4,000-foot jump through the use of a helmet and special goggles. It may not seem like a lifelike experience to the casual observer, but for the student it’s realistic, officials said.

The trainer is connected to a computer system which allows him to plug in different scenarios such as evasion or nonevasion, varying terrain, weather conditions and wind speeds. The student must remember which checklist to use for different scenarios, Mr. Dawson said.

Two monitors are connected to the trainer that feed and receive information to and from the student.

One monitor is an instructor monitor where the student’s weight and scenarios are plugged in before to the jump. The other shows what the student sees while wearing the goggles.

The helmet and goggles use split-second technology that tracks the student’s head position as he or she looks up or down, allowing other students and the instructor to see what he or she is seeing. When the jump is finished, the tape can be replayed from either the point of view of a stationary observer on the ground or from another parachuting person’s view. The computer scores the jump and then the instructor and classmates can critique it.

Although the trainer is a great aid, the student must do the hard work of running down the parachute descent checklist depending on altitude and weather conditions before he or she lands. Students also must pick the best spot to land. If conditions change, the student must be able to adapt to them.

The class takes about three hours.

“It allows us to do the training in the classroom where we eliminate the risk of injury that can occur during a real jump,” Mr. Dawson said. “This is great because their job is not jumping; their job is to fly the aircraft, and in the worst case scenario, get out if it’s not going to make it back to a base and safely get home.”

The equipment is used to train pilots, copilots, navigators and boom operators, officials said. As far as the benefits it gives to the crew members, the cost is nominal.

“It’s a pretty good tool,” said Mr. Dawson, who was also a trainer during his 20-year active-duty career. “For what the Air Force paid for it, they’ve more than gotten their money back.”

The trainer is used throughout Air Mobility Command, and it is a great confidence builder, said KC-135 boom operator Airman 1st Class Zach Lauritzen.

“You go through the initial training and have it in memory, but to have a machine like that really helps you out,” he said. “I am confident that if I ever had to bail out of the aircraft, I’m equipped with the right tools now.”

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