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NASA - Survival Training
June 4, 2007

Simulator makes parachute training more realistic

By Jay Levine
X-Press Editor

A research aircraft becomes uncontrollable and the pilot is forced to eject. The ejection handle is pulled and the seat catapult fires. As the seat leaves the aircraft, a drogue chute is deployed to stabilize the seat in the airstream. The main parachute deploys and the pilot is separated from the seat. During his or her descent, the pilot discovers a malfunction in the canopy of the parachute. The pilot has been briefed on canopy malfunctions and corrective actions before, but has never had to put this training to use in a life or death situation.

Image above: Dryden Life Support Technician Bobby McElwain secures and prepares Lori Losey for her virtual reality parachute training mission. (NASA Photo by Carla Thomas)

Pilots at Dryden with luck will never experience such a scenario, but if they do they will have used a tool developed by Systems Technology Inc. called the Virtual Reality Parachute Flight Simulator at the Life Support Unit. Use of the simulator will at least give pilots a virtual look at tough situations and help them to feel a bit more prepared in an emergency.

Simulator software calculates the rate of descent, side to side motion, oscillation, feet from the landing target and an overall landing score. Even wind sound effects are included in the simulation. It's the next best thing to being there, instructors say.

The parachute simulator isn't just a chance to practice parachute failures, but to experience them. The trainee is fastened into a parachute harness and connected to a suspended parachute device. The trainee wears special virtual reality goggles that allow him or her to literally see and feel just about everything a real-life situation would include, minus the threat to life and limb.

Image above: Lori Losey pulls to release her parachute. (Photo by Carla Thomas)

"Training used to be limited. You could not teach a realistic canopy malfunction. If altitude permits, corrective action must be taken to improve your chance of having a safe landing. Rate of descent can be drastically increased if landing with a malfunction. With this simulator they can see what the problems are and they can react. In the past that wasn't the case," said Bobby McElwain, Dryden life support technician.

The machine has displays that allow the instructor/controller to see what the trainees are seeing, how they are reacting and give them additional instruction in more advanced simulations.

By looking up, a student in the virtual reality simulation can see the parachute canopy and he or she can take corrective action. A full or partial inversion, twisted suspension lines or risers, or rips and tears are simulated on a number of terrain and situational selections the instructor can program. Factors such as the trainee's weight and wind conditions also can be programmed into the simulation.

At about 200 feet during the simulation, instructors look for other physical characteristics of good parachuting form. The instructors are looking for a position in which the students' toes are down, knees together, feet together and eyes straight ahead.

Image above:This is one view that the instructor and student can see in the virtual reality simulator. (Photo by Tom Tschida)

Lori Losey, who works for Sparta Inc. as Dryden's senior producer/director, said the simulation was useful.

"It was pretty accurate simulation of what they have been telling us. Seeing something to react to instead of imagining how to react is very useful," she said.

The U.S. military, special forces and smoke jumpers also are using this simulator for training.

"People who benefit the most are those with no experience," McElwain said. "It's a good tool to practice with," said Rick Borsch, Life Support section chief. "You don't get real parachute training except at the academy.

"It's hard to remember what to do the first time, so this tool helps them to feel more confident if they do end up in a situation where they are parachuting and have troubles," Borsch said.

"There is a proficiency level we want everyone to reach," McElwain said.

Pilots have to go through the parachute training once a year, while back seat occupants and photographers have to repeat the training once every six months. Some backseat passengers are put through the training once a month until they are proficient.

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