The ultimate boy's toy

ONE of the most talked-about flying machines at the army base in Wattisham does not even take off. It's the ultimate boy's toy - a simulator of the multi-million Apache helicopter, training air crews to use the real attack machines.

ONE of the most talked-about flying machines at the army base in Wattisham does not even take off.

It's the ultimate boy's toy - a simulator of the multi-million Apache helicopter, training air crews to use the real attack machines. HAZEL BYFORD caught up with crew under intensive training, and was the first journalist allowed behind the controls as a trainee fighter pilot.

MY mission, if I chose to accept it, was simple.

There was just one uncomplicated instruction - not to press the yellow button.

I was sat at the controls of a piece of state-of-the-art military equipment worth several millions of pounds, but so long as I stayed away from the 'big yellow button' nothing could go wrong.

It wasn't like lives were at stake, or the future of national security relied on it, because this was a simulator of a helicopter rather than the real thing.

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But sat alone, surrounded by hundreds of lights and buttons I was still feeling the pressure.

It may ultimately have been a big game but it wasn't one I was about to get wrong…and that big yellow button meant game over.

The simulator is a model of an Apache WAH-64 attack helicopter, used to put aircrew through the most arduous of tests as part of their training at Wattisham's army base. It was officially opened in November and 3 Regiment Army Air Corps are now half way through an intensive training programme to learn the real machine's full capabilities.

Apaches, worth around £35million each, attack armoured ground enemies so they need strong firepower and a sophisticated targeting system. A fire-control radar gives the helicopter its main advantage, as it can detect and identify more than 1,000 targets at once. Its 'hellfire' anti-tank missiles can strike armoured tanks from four miles away.

My experience didn't quite involve that level of action, thank heavens. It started in a multi-purpose training room to familiarise myself with all the screens and buttons.

I learned that “reference right, 3 o'clock, move to twelve o'clock” meant use my right hand control to move the button on the right upwards, and that to “press left MPD B6” I had to look at my left-hand screen and press the end button in the bottom row. Easy.

With that mastered, I was ready for the real thing and met the men who control the simulator from the outside. These were the people who were going to decide what enemies I would be facing and whether I got 'shot down' …so I tried being overly nice to them.

My biggest surprise came before I even stepped foot into the simulator, when I heard that I was going to be on my own.

The Apache has space for two crew, so the pilot sits in a raised seat in the rear and the commander sits in front. I assumed the simulator would be the same, but that's the where there's a big difference between the pretend and the real thing.

There are in fact two simulators so although I was seeing, hearing and feeling the same as the instructor we were actually in separate rooms, talking over headsets.

Once in the simulator, a large dome enclosed over the top of me and I was asked to switch the motion button on. It was by no means a case of having a leisurely fly, shooting at will. Every move I made was the result of an instruction from the pilot. He talked me through each motion, why we doing it and what I should be looking, listening and feeling for.

I'm not allowed to reveal details of what I saw on the screens - a reminder that this is top MOD business, not an arcade game - but I spent an hour inside, during which time I shot and exploded our main target tank, and fired a host of missiles to blow up some other tanks.

Left alone I wouldn't have spotted the targets in a month of Sundays but I was guided kindly to them by the instructor.

They were just green lights on the screens but the inside of the dome was like the Apache's front window so I was effectively seeing what the crew would see in the air.

When I fired weapons I could see them shoot out from the helicopter and after a few seconds cause an explosion in the distance. It was surprisingly peaceful other than that.

There were fortunately no enemy aircraft in the mix until the very end when the controllers outside the simulator decided to shoot us down.

The engines went out one by one, various pieces of equipment beep as you get closer and closer to the ground and then, bam, the screen goes red.

I thought I'd done pretty well until my instructor told me what I'd achieved in 60 minutes, a real Apache air crew member could do in under 60 seconds.

When aircrew arrive at the simulator base for training they already know how to fly an Apache. What they learn in the simulator is how to fight. Pilots learn tactics, how to link up with supporting helicopters and vehicles on the ground and so on. The course takes six months which is the same amount of time it takes to learn how to actually fly the helicopter.

After leaving the simulator I looked round a real Apache and was bombarded with fascinating facts about top speeds and weapon capabilities before climbing aboard.

Strangely there was no yellow button - apparently because it's the simulator's 'off' button and you obviously don't need one in the real thing!

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Claydon MBE is commanding officer of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps which now has its full quota of 16 Apaches. He said: “The simulator is an intrinsic part of delivering Apache training and very impressive in terms of realism.

“As far as air crew are concerned, when they are in it, they are flying an Apache.

“It can't replicate the experience fully, there will be gaps, like weather conditions, but as far as aircraft systems go it's a godsend. It enables the crew to do condition training they can't do in the real aircraft, like air missile engagements, and it reduces the noise footprint we make on the area, which was a worry for residents.

“It's very much a part of our future. We've had a lynx simulator since 1993 and it is used very regularly. It's so immensely capable that even those who are four or five years down the line are finding new areas of capabilities. It's got enormous growth potential.

“The full training of 4 Regiment Army Air Corps, which will follow on from my regiment, is not likely to finish before 2009. Our crews love flying the Apache even though it demands so much from them. There's no better attack helicopter in the world and once you've mastered it, the rewards are outstanding.”

Even the meagre rewards I reaped from trying out the simulator were outstanding.

Think of it as the ultimate computer game and times the fun factor by ten. It's playing the role of an RAF pilot without any of the responsibility.

I'm not usually a boys' toy sort of girl but this was more than enough to make me discover my inner tomboy.

N The simulator was provided by Aviation Training International

N It costs around £6.5million

N The specialist building it is housed in costs more than £5million, and has been funded by a consortium of 13 banks.

N Aviation Training International is under contract to provide 3,600 hours a year training in the simulator at Wattisham - and air crew often train into the night.

N The simulators are made by Boeing - the world's leading aerospace company and the largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft

N There are two other simulators like the one at Wattisham. One is at Dishforth in North Yorkshire - the home of 9 Regiment Army Air Corps. The other is used specifically to teach air crew to fly, not fight, at Middle Wallop in Hampshire. The three are networked so crews can work together, despite the miles between them.

n Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon described the Apache as “the most significant leap in battlefield technology since the introduction of tanks in the First World War.”

n Apaches were first developed in the 1970s and went into active service in America in 1985. They were credited with destroying more than 500 Iraqi tanks during the 1991 Gulf War

n The UK's WAH-64 model has a cruise speed at 500m of 272km/h and a maximum weight of 7,746kg when loaded. They carry 16 Hellfire II missiles, 76 rockets, 1,200 cannon rounds and four air-to-air missiles

n Apaches use Rolls Royce engines and have the equivalent power of 12 Formula One cars in each of the engines

n The Apache's surveillance system can see up to eight kilometres, away day or night

n There are currently 16 Apaches at Wattisham for the 3 Regiment Army Air Corps. They will be joined by another 16 when 4 Regiment Army Air Corps follows suit

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