The aircraft has been in service for four years, but one of the most important parts of the Boeing P-8A program is only just beginning. The Maintenance Training Facility, located in a bespoke two-story building on the U.S. Navy's Jacksonville, Florida, base, is using a combination of physical, virtual and classroom learning systems to ensure that new recruits are thoroughly familiarized with all aspects of the aircraft's maintenance before they are let loose on the multi-million-dollar airframes.
The facility was built in 2013, and is in the process of training its first cadre of instructors. "We teach a total of 10 courses to six rates," says senior chief aviation electronics technician Dan Bradberry. Training begins with a nine-day basic course of classroom study before students are divided by specialism.
The look of the different training rooms may change, but the basics are the same: each includes a full-scale replica of a section of the aircraft, and a twin set of computer workstations. These virtual maintenance trainers (VMTs) account for the vast majority of the training delivered.
Students learn the procedures for each component or subsystem by carrying out tasks on the VMT. Tutors program simulated faults from their own workstation, monitoring progress as students follow procedures to identify the fault, then remove and replace the component. Once competence has been demonstrated on the VMT, the students move to the physical device, and perform the same tasks with replica hardware.
"From the students' standpoint, it's great to talk about it in the classroom, come down here and do it virtually, then move over and actually put hands on," says Bradberry. "Those three levels of training give a much better outcome."
The physical trainers vary in size from an avionics cabinet smaller than the average hotel wardrobe through to a stretched 737 fuselage and wing, used to train both external and internal weapons-loading procedures. Bradberry, previously a P-3 instructor, believes the high fidelity will bring huge benefits.
"This is actually not as expensive as if you built a single close-to-scale trainer," he argues. "Outside of the expense you would have to factor in what would happen when the aircraft received modifications, and only one person would be able to use it at a time. In a virtual environment I get the capability of doing multiple things with one VMT, and everybody can be doing something at the same time."