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Bringing heat: Simulation facility keeps JTACs sharp

A tactical air control party Airman with the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron, surveys the landscape through a laser rangefinder inside the 6th Combat Training Squadron’s joint terminal attack controller virtual training facility at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., April 29, 2015. Since 2013, the 6th CTS has graduated more than 500 TACP Airmen from their JTAC Qualification Course which provides them with the experience and expertise required to call for live fire. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Joshua Kleinholz)

A tactical air control party Airman with the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron, surveys the landscape through a laser rangefinder inside the 6th Combat Training Squadron’s joint terminal attack controller virtual training facility at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., April 29, 2015. Since 2013, the 6th CTS has graduated more than 500 TACP Airmen from their JTAC Qualification Course which provides them with the experience and expertise required to call for live fire. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Joshua Kleinholz)

A joint terminal attack control instructor assigned to the 6th Combat Training Squadron plays the role of a ground commander during a close air support training scenario inside the 6th CTS’ JTAC virtual training facility at Nellis AFB April 29, 2015. By playing active roles in training scenarios, instructors are able to offer thorough evaluations of student performance. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Joshua Kleinholz)

A joint terminal attack control instructor assigned to the 6th Combat Training Squadron plays the role of a ground commander during a close air support training scenario inside the 6th CTS’ JTAC virtual training facility at Nellis AFB April 29, 2015. By playing active roles in training scenarios, instructors are able to offer thorough evaluations of student performance. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Joshua Kleinholz)

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- The proliferation of close air support applications in modern conflict has kept Air Force joint terminal attack controllers rather busy in recent years.

Tasked with providing a link between joint airpower assets above and ground commanders below, these Airmen are a powerful force multiplier that, in conjunction with skilled pilots patrolling the skies, can single-handedly change the momentum of a fight.

Coordinating the movements and activities of multiple aircraft, all of which have different capabilities and limitations, in a given airspace with a radio on the ground can seem like a daunting task. Add in stressers like knowing where friendlies are at all times, integrating rotary wing aircraft, and artillery despite having limited visibility, fatigue, equipment failures and in the worst cases - enemy fire, and you have an incredibly dangerous situation almost impossible to train for.

The 6th Combat Training Squadron's state of the art JTAC simulation facility at Nellis Air Force Base provides a most realistic training environment.

"We are the premier schoolhouse in educating not only the Air Force, but the joint community in the application and integration of firepower," said Master Sgt. David King, the 6th CTS superintendent.

With the Air Force making large advances forward with live, virtual and constructive training concepts, fifth-generation simulators, like the ones found here, are on the leading edge of that effort.

In 2010, the schoolhouse opened featuring six Fire Forward Air Control Trainer Systems that became critical in the execution of two courses responsible for generating and standardizing JTACs; in addition to supporting the U.S. Air Force Weapons School's Advanced Instructor Course, and annual training for Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

Four years later in July 2014, the world's largest close air support simulation facility became the third site for the installation of two Advanced JTAC Simulator (AJTS) domes that place students in a fully immersive 270-degree virtual battlespace.

Danny Gallegos, a former JTAC now working as the 6th CTS simulation lead, knows the system inside and out.

"These domes blow less experienced students out of the water," said Gallegos, who is part of the two-man staff that oversee the maintenance and updates on the simulators. "Within our scenarios you're seeing a lot of things -- multi-layered air assets on top of each other, tracking multiple ground troops in contact, and limited to no visibility situations at night that can be combined to create a lot of unknowns."

In addition to the primary trainee position within the dome, the AJTS system also features separate control stations for other assets that can contribute to a given scenario. Rated pilots or JTAC instructors themselves can use a desktop flight simulator to take control of a friendly aircraft and maneuver it accordingly based on communications with the student feverishly surveying the "skies" just steps away in the dome.

Next to the pilot sits another instructor acting as the ground commander, who will steer the battle. They rely on the JTAC's constant advice on CAS options and how best to employ them.

Prior to executing a scenario, instructors can use all these tools at their disposal to play back any actions taken by the student, and show how they effected the end result. With the press of a button, instructors can switch the dome display and turn it into a 270-degree flying cockpit depicting the point of view of the pilot involved in the latest engagement.

"You really do have to sit down because it messes with your equilibrium," Gallegos said, commenting on the dome's high immersion factor. "Seeing things from the air in the pilot's shoes can change the way you think about calling shots from the ground. Those are the kinds of different things these guys are always hitting on."

Graduating more than 500 new JTACS from their JTAC Qualification Course since 2013, and logging 3,000 hours on the two AJTS domes in the process, the 6th CTS is armed with the technology and expertise to keep battlefield Airmen bringing the heat into current and future conflicts worldwide.

The Air Force will continue to depend on the 6th CTS' instructors and technical staff to provide the most realistic training available in an environment where mistakes are felt momentarily -- not for a lifetime.

"When students do make a mistake in the simulator you can tell they still feel it," King said. "Nothing like what you'd feel in the real world, but for all of us to be able to take our lessons learned and listen to the stories from guys who've unfortunately been exposed to that, it really is an extremely valuable experience for our students."

It takes a cool head and years of training for JTACs to call in airstrikes under the stresses of combat without making a potentially deadly mistake. However failure within the simulator realm, with the most complex scenarios, comes without the severe consequences and you can always press pause.

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