The "Flying Camel" squadron is one of the primary Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) squadrons in the Israeli Air Force, responsible for gathering Visual Intelligence (VisInt) and providing real time mission support in the form of high quality visuals to fighter aircrafts and ground forces. The squadron clocks more flight hours than any other manned squadron in the IAF.
In the past decade there has been a steady rise in operational flight hours carried out by the “Flying Camels”, numbers which are likely to continue to increase due to the rising demand from other squadrons for high quality VisInt as well as what we in the force refer to as “Blue/Green jointness”: air assistance and support to ground units. This is the only squadron where IDF intelligence personnel (airborne observers) are fully integrated at the squadron-level to serve by the side of IAF pilots on every mission.
During the recent operation “Pillar of Defense” (November 2012) the squadron played a central role in locating and identifying underground launchers aimed at citizens living in Israel’s southern cities as well as munitions warehouses in the Gaza strip. The squadron provides real time visual feed in the vicinity of such target sites to ensure no civilians are within range - one of several means to avoid harm to uninvolved parties during these missions.
The high demand for our squadron's unique services meant that availability of aircraft (King Air B200) for non-operational purposes, i.e. training flights is severely limited. Crews and the commanders from the squadron recognized the need to maintain training requirements, and together with personnel from the IAF Simulator Branch and civilian Industries (Ness Technologies as main contractor and Simlat Ltd.) built a custom simulator which has overwhelmingly boosted the readiness capability and level of training of squadron observers and mission commanders.
Fire Tower Trainer
The King Air B200 is installed with an ISR system – Fire Tower - unique to the IAF. Two airborne observers and a mission commander, each at their station, man the cabin.
The Mission commander manages and coordinates the mission - guiding two pilots around the area of interest and two airborne observers for optimal and strategic visuals. In addition, the mission commander provides real time communication with headquarters or the ground forces and relays mission-specific information back to the crew.
Before the simulator was introduced, training of airborne observers and mission commanders took place in the aircraft itself and required the full five-person crew. Moreover, each training flight required an available aircraft, as well relying on less reliable parameters such as convenient weather, air traffic and air space. The simulator was thus introduced as a means to fill the void of training flights, independent of these parameters. Now, the training session takes place in a cabin mock up, connected to a virtual world of simulation. The trainer’s instructor station and image generators provide visual feed to each trainee station. The instructor role-plays the flight crew.
While all other IAF squadrons must “outsource” training hours at various simulation and training units - which are external to the operational squadron, the “Flying Camels” now enjoy the in-house training centre - “Fire Tower Trainer”. The “Fire Tower Trainer” is comprised of the operational "Fire Tower" system and a special Interface computer that bridges "Fire Tower's trainees’ real world with the virtual world of the Simlat Full Crew Stand Alone Training System (referred to by the civilian industry as C-STAR).” All three components together create a full mission crew training solution that has become a cost-effective training tool.
The training simulator enables team members to train simultaneously on a mission. This allows the inimitable team dynamics between crewmembers to surface, so the instructors may review them and be improved upon.
The C-STAR system can be customized for every platform; payload or mission (allowing simultaneous training of payload operation skills). This variability is critical for thorough training of crews as such parameters play a major part in real-life mission management. It creates a virtual world comprised of the aircraft, the sensor, the arena, training scenarios and live "true" video to the trainees’ screens. Squadron personnel working with the simulator note that the mock-up is incredibly realistic; the cabin, high-fidelity communication, visual feed, manoeuvring and sensation of the EO device gives an experience quite similar to an actual ISR flight.
Instructors must have sound knowledge regarding the operation or “technical-aspects” of the simulator. Perhaps more importantly, they are the personnel responsible for classifying the scenarios the crew will deal with per simulation. Each instructor must be well-versed with mission-related knowledge, so as to be able to role-play the pilot’s communication. By doing this, instructors can create scenarios to test the crew’s ability to react to a change in the navigation or safety status of the plane. C-STAR gives the training instructor a complete ability to create, control, guide and execute the training session.
The instructional capability of the simulator improves a range of skills, including:
- Teamwork and communication dynamics
- Dealing with technical faults and emergency procedures
- Choosing the most appropriate EO device given mission conditions and scenario
- Abiding by IAF principles and mission-protocol; prioritizing, decision making and dilemmas
- Correct classification of VisInt: militant vehicle, suspicious activity etc.
- Correct location and positioning of the aircraft and requesting to reposition aircraft if necessary.
Simulator instructors in the IAF are usually young female soldiers (age range between 20-22), who have passed an intense 10 month course. The course covers basic simulation and training terminology, and specializes in knowledge of IAF orders and protocol for various mission scenarios; how to instruct, and improve teamwork skills. They are a well respected authority on training matters and provide feedback to the airborne observers as well as the senior mission commanders following each simulation exercise.
The simulator has boosted two training elements recognizably vital to members of the squadron: readiness and specialization. The first: maintaining mission-readiness of aircrews can now be carried out at least every quarter independent of the personnel and weather limitations described earlier.
Under these new training conditions scenarios can be made more challenging; advancing mission parameters to higher levels than can ordinarily be experienced on a standard airborne training flight. Since over 80% of the squadron’s personnel are reservists they average at least one operational flight per week. The simulator has provided more training experience than standard reconnaissance missions can facilitate such as how to deal with emergency procedures or how to guide attack units to a target area etc.
The second training element to be greatly improved as a result of the simulator has been role-specialization for airborne observers. Two airborne observers man two stations: the more senior (S1) is responsible for identifying and classifying the aerial picture, while the other scout (S2) focuses on zoom and filtering of the EO device. In order to qualify for S2 specialization, scouts would progress based on the number of actual flight hours and the nature and complexity of the missions involved. With the introduction of the simulator, the process now includes a standardized number of hours in the simulator, each simulated mission grants progress to the next level: ranging from basic reconnaissance to more complex ground force support missions. The results from the training centre factor in to the eligibility of personnel to serve in the more senior position (S10), a decision made by the squadron’s review committee.
Creating an environment with high-resemblance to the operational world runs central to achieving a well-rounded and adaptable crew. This challenge remains central to improving and developing the range of environments that can be simulated on a training scenario. The added benefit of one scenario (modelling crowded urban environment wherein crews needed to identify missile-launchers and munitions stores) greatly added to the readiness of crews during the recent operation “Pillar of Defense”.
Although not yet celebrating two years since its introduction, the “Fire Tower Trainer” has already proven its benefit, and not simply by justifying its financial viability. Most notably, the mission-readiness of personnel during last year’s IDF “Pillar of Defense” operation was unparalleled. But there is still progress to be made; the more geographical scenarios we can train our pilots and airborne observers, the better prepared they will be. Being able to deal with a range of challenging, customized scenarios is the way forward - encouraging the creativity of our instructors to put forward as many different scenarios as is reasonable. While simulated missions cannot fully replace the training experience from an airborne mission perspective, the training teams can function more independently of external and variable parameters. Independent continuity of the training programme for maximum readiness and specialization remains a top priority for the ISR responsibilities of the IAF “Flying Camels”. The 24/7 demand for the squadron’s high quality ISR (operational missions) no longer competes with the demand to train and maintain the fitness of personnel. The introduction of the simulator has ensured that these training demands are and will continue to be fully met.
Contributors to this article were Commander of Operations Division at Reconnaissance squadron; Commander of Training and Simulation Centre; and the Head of Weapon and UAV Simulator Section.
The Beechcraft King Air B200 “Tzofit” training centre
Beechcraft King Air B200 pilots of the Israeli Air Forces (IAF) are trained at the “Tzofit” training centre near Tel Aviv. Elbit Systems has been operating the facility since 2009. It is financed through a private financing initiative (PFI) programme in which Elbit Systems provides the IAF with a turnkey solution, supplying all of the services in the centre, including the maintenance and training of the pilots and air cadets. Training includes simulator flight training sessions with instructors who are both employed and trained by Elbit Systems. The flight and ground school instructors are veteran IAF pilots, all of whom are King Air B200 captains with thousands of flight hours.
The full flight simulator (FFS) is Level D-qualified by Transport Canada (Canadian Aviation Authority) and includes a highly sophisticated six-degrees-of-freedom motion system, hi-fidelity cockpit with advanced avionics and visual system. The trainer was jointly developed with the Canadian company Mechtronix, which operates as sub-contractor in the project.
The King Air B200 training centre is also open to civil aviation pilots both from Israel and elsewhere.