Simulating worst to do our best

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Emergency lights flicker in the cockpit, signaling an engine fire. The pilot knows that if he doesn't react quickly enough he could lose that engine mid-flight.

The C-130J Super Hercules continues to sway from the turbulence caused by the surrounding, thunderous weather and dark skies. The pilot's hands become shakier as he looks around almost in a panicked state.

Feet behind them sit the figure of someone collected, pulling the strings over the entire scenario. From the stormy weather to the violently-swaying cabin, a perfect storm is being created all from a laptop perched inside the dark cockpit, helmed by Brandon Cowell, 86th Operations Support Squadron C-130J simulator site manager and pilot. 

"With the press of a button, this pilot's number four engine is on fire," said Cowell. "You can't go out and set an engine on fire for someone to learn how to put it out; it's training for that mishap or that emergency that is the most important part of this simulator."

Cowell's job for the last eight years has been to train pilots and loadmasters that require either a renewal for their licenses or how to handle scenarios they've never been in before. Why throw these pilots through the worst possible circumstances? Because, according to Cowell, it's what helps them grow.

"This environment allows students to come and show us what they know and then let us take them to another level," said Cowell. "I want to train students for the worst to turn them into the best."

Training them to become the best pilots they can be is one of the goals that Cowell must meet as the site manager of the simulator. According to him, one of the most difficult aspects of maintaining the C-130J simulator is keeping it realistic for his students.

"It's hard to provide an effective training environment for students if the environment isn't like the real one they'll work in," said Cowell. "It'd be a joke to them. This [simulator] is no joke. The sounds you hear, the engine noise, everything is replicated in there."

However, it's well worth it in the end, he says.

"It's really fun to see people actually immerse themselves in the plane," said Cowell. "That's when it makes it easy to teach. When they begin to have fun, they begin to learn."

One pilot who has trained in the simulator, Maj. Alex Adams, 86th Operations Group standardizations and evaluations chief and evaluator pilot, saw firsthand how immersive the experience can be.

"The graphics are the best I've seen," said Adams. "I [could] see my house and other buildings in my local village.  You can fly a night vision goggle profile, and it feels like you are actually conducting night operations."

Part of the reason Cowell puts so much effort into immersing his students is because he, too, was a pilot. In the Air Force Reserve for 13 years, Cowell is passionate about flying, whether it's in the cockpit of a real C-130J or a recreated one in a simulator.

His passion helps to educate waves of Airmen that will continue flying for years, and he does so knowing just how important he and his instructors' roles are.

"If we're busy, we're training people, and if we're training people, we're making the Air Force a little safer," said Cowell.

Now that pilots no longer have to fly to the U.S. to train on simulators there, the simulator here saves U.S. Air Forces in Europe approximately $250,000 a year. Yet, Cowell believes it saves something more valuable.

"You can share the amount of money this sim saves for days, but at the end of the day, you can't put a number on how many lives are saved by pilots getting this type of training."