Everything about the F-35 program requires new ways of thinking for the air forces that will operate the aircraft, and the industrial entities that are supplying them. Training and simulation are no exception.

At Rockwell Collins’ simulation center in Burgess Hill, Sussex, UK, some of the challenges involved in providing a fifth-generation training capability are brought in to focus. The company’s Griffin Dome is the solution selected by platform prime contractor Lockheed Martin to provide the required level of fidelity – but designing and delivering it has meant overcoming several high hurdles.

The dome itself is made from three pieces of acrylic sheeting, which are shaped before being baked in an autoclave, then painted on a robotic jig to ensure the surface is free of any defects that could cause errors in the visual simulation. The dome is surrounded by towers carrying 25 specially designed projectors.

“People look at us and go, ‘Why did you build your own projector?’” says Mike Blackford, RC’s training and simulation program manager. “Trust me: Rockwell Collins has no ambition – no ambition! – to be a projector manufacturer. We made it because we needed the features of it, not because we wanted to build projectors.”

To ensure the 25 devices project a consistent picture onto the dome, with no visible joins and with no variation in brightness between one part of the scene and another, the image processing needs to be an order of magnitude better than on commodity products. Blackford points to the contrast ratio of the projector to illustrate the concept.

“In a very good COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] projector, you might have something like a 20,000:1 contrast ratio,” he says. “This is 1,000,000:1 out of the lens. That means we can electronically blend two projector images, so you can have continuity of time of day, you can go from full day to full night, and all the blends stay working.”

 High-fidelity simulation is the key objective, and even touching the inside of the dome can degrade visual performance. To minimize the chances of damaging it, the cockpit is moved in and out of the dome on rails, and raised to the right point inside the dome with a scissor lift.

Generic but accurately mapped global imagery is supplied by RC, and customers have the option of requesting detailed inserts. Major airports and some military air bases are already included in the company’s simulation products. During a demonstration “flight” at Burgess Hill, ShowNews took off from Nellis AFB, Nev., and headed about 80 mi. northwest: Air Force Flight Test Center, Detachment 3, was where we expected it to be, though sadly – if understandably – had not been modeled in detail.

There are other aspects of the F-35 simulation solution that similarly require going a considerable distance further than on legacy aircraft. The jet does not have a head-up display, meaning that the helmet-mounted display – available on other platforms, but not generally in their simulators – is going to be an essential part of the training system.

RC is part of the consortium that produces the F-35 helmet, and is offering two solutions for the simulator. One is based around the actual flight helmet, while the other is less representative of the real device. The two alternatives are currently being evaluated by LM.

“In the aircraft, the optics are focused to infinity, but for a sim, where the screen is only about six feet away, you need a different focal length,” Blackford says, explaining why a standard flight helmet cannot be used in the simulator. “The simulation-type version has a different look and feel to it.”

A simulator variant would be cheaper, yet that may not be an advisable option on F-35. Unlike with the vast majority of earlier fighters, there is no two-seat variant, so the first flight in the aircraft for every pilot will be solo. Similarly, the combination of sensors, weapons and electronic warfare systems on board mean that some capabilities will likely never be used in during live training. The Royal Air Force has said it expects to do 50% of its F-35 training in the simulator ­– more than on any other fighter. Other nations appear to be following this lead.

 “There are certainly things you can only train in the sim, and there are efficiencies of doing things in the sim,” Blackford says. “To get to that 50-50 ambition, you really do need high fidelity, so introducing a weak link would be a false economy.”