In the nearly two years since its inception as a drawing board idea to address a capability gap within the Army air traffic control community, the ATC Common Simulator has come a long way. The first two of 15 planned systems have been fielded; the first one to Fort Rucker and the second to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.
The system, according to Lt. Col. Mike Rutkowski, product manager for the Air Traffic Control product office, PEO Aviation, is somewhat of a historic achievement because “this is the first time that we have one standard simulator for all of ATC that tackles both tactical and tower simulator missions, and also meets the needs of the simulator requirements that our (air traffic control operators) need to meet their qualifications.”
As part of his initial assessment of the ATC community after assuming responsibility for the office, Rutkowski discovered that there was no Armywide, standardized simulator system. Various systems were used by air traffic control units and some units used nothing at all. Sustainment and funding issues muddied the water even further.
“It really was all over the map,” Rutkowski said. “Some units were using go to war dollars to purchase simulation. Other units were going without it. But there was no standardized system throughout the Army for ATC simulation.”
Further research by the ATC product team found that most systems being used in theater and brought back weren’t being supported due to changes in funding. System sustainment, Rutkowski said, became part of the solution challenge.
“We verified a capability gap, we got everybody together in the community to address it, received the thumbs up, we went out and did it, and now 18 months later, it’s the first time in ATC history that we have a simulator that can be fielded so units don’t have to go out and do it on their own. And somebody is managing that,” he said, referring to the product office he heads up. “So we’re pretty proud to bring this capability to Army aviation.”
The development process included a competitive procurement through Government Services Administration with Adacel, a company with corporate offices in Orlando, Fla., winning the competition. Several war fighter user juries, or test groups, were run and the system was vetted by its several stakeholders to include Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Rucker’s Army Aviation Center of Excellence, the Department of Transportation and the Army’s G8.
The result, Rutkowski said, was a system that was Soldier approved before it hit production.
“We fielded the 82nd two weeks ago and Rucker has had it for a month,” Rutkowski said. “We had an after action review with three ATC units recently. We showed it to them and the feedback we got was out of this world. We knocked it out of the park. One command sergeant major said something along the lines of ‘I really wanted to find fault with this because I’ve seen simulation falter in the past, and now here comes the Army standard system. I thought I was going to see something that didn’t measure up. In fact, I saw something that did measure up and it’s something the Soldier truly needs.’”
Rutkowski noted that the ATC product office team would soon be sending a simulator to Fort Carson, Colo., so that 15Q air traffic controllers with the new combat aviation brigade can get a jump on their training before the arrival of their Mobile Tower System and Air Traffic Navigation, Integration and Coordination System equipment.
“Honestly, the biggest issue we now face is we can’t keep up with the demand. We had only seven systems programmed for purchase in FY ‘14,” he said. “We accelerated that to 15 for this fiscal year. I would like to do even more, but there’s not enough time to schedule all of the training that’s required to field more. We’re already fielding them as fast as they’re being made. Plus, we can’t get too far ahead because it’s supposed to be fielded with MOTS and ATNAVICS.”
MOTS is another ATC product office success story. The first unit equipped was the 82nd’s Fox Company, but several other units were equipped with early low rate initial production models for training purposes. The 3rd Infantry Division took an engineering MOTS unit with them to Afghanistan in 2012. The resulting feedback from the unit was fed directly into the LRIP production line, resulting in a battle tested system before the first regular LRIP production system rolled off the line.
“How many times in acquisition do you get to field a mainstream piece of equipment a year and a half ahead of schedule, use that feedback to improve the LRIP line, then, when the production models roll off, you’re not constantly trying to do changes?” Rutkowski asked, noting that changes equate to driving up costs. “We seized an opportunity to send MOTS into combat and gained valuable feedback. That was critical for us, not only to make sure we got the system right, but you can’t put a dollar figure on how much we saved by doing that, by getting it right the first time. I really think it’s millions. We didn’t have to use program money later on when the system is already out in the field.”
An LRIP MOTS was also offered to the Mississippi National Guard in July 2012 and one found its way to Fort Rucker’s air traffic control school so that Soldiers could see what they would be training to use in the future.
MOTS is currently in its final stages LRIP and Rutkowski noted that his office had recently taken delivery of the 10th LRIP systems. Six more are planned to be built in fiscal years ‘14 and ‘15 in a joint effort between Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center’s Prototype Integration Facility.
Success of the ATC systems, Rutkowski noted, can be directly traced to the strength of the product office team.
“It’s been said that if you surround yourself with good people that good things are going to happen,” he said, “and I’ve got a lot of really good people here in ATC.”