Replacing the existing Farnborough based High G centrifuge facility which dates from the mid 1950’s, it is very pleasing to note that the Thales UK built and operated state-of-the-art replacement High-G Training and Test Facility was formally commissioned at RAF Cranwell yesterday by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier. This vital and much needed training centrifuge facility that will provide military pilots with the vital knowledge, understanding and confidence that allows them to better handle High G in flight.
The new RAF Cranwell centrifuge facility can accelerate pilots up to 9-G in just one second and the importance of this £44 million investment by the MOD in the new RAF Cranwell facility really cannot be understated. Put simply, apart from required safety training aspects, due to the centrifuge cockpit layout and design fast jet pilots in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy will for the first time be able to fully replicate flight and likely anticipated G-forces that they might experience in all present day fifth and sixth generation fast jet capability such as the BAE Systems Hawk, Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning.
Completed by Thales UK and build partners that include Galliford Try and Atkins on time and on budget, this brand new state of the art facility is part of a £44 million project managed by Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S). The centrifuge is designed to allow pilots to not only experience up to 9G (nine times the normal gravitational pull of the Earth) but also to rotate them at a rate of 34 times per minute.
Having known and experienced the soon to be retired centrifuge facility at Farnborough I very much look forward to seeing the new Thales UK High G centrifuge facility at RAF Cranwell in operation. The facility marks a revolutionary change and very large step up in training capability for fast jet military pilots and all those that will be obliged to train on it at some point.
Rather than just being strapped into a canopy and exposed to G-force, as is the case in the existing High G trainer at Farnborough, pilots will be able to receive realistic fully immersive training in a life-size centrifuge cockpit that allows them to simulate real-life mission experiences as they ‘fly’ the centrifuge, just as they do regularly as part of their wider training in fast jet flight simulators. The High-G centrifuge facility will allow pilot to not only develop awareness and learn about the physical techniques required to counter the effects on their bodies during combat missions but also to be able to manoeuvre and accelerate positive and negative G forces in a highly invested properly designed synthetic based training environment.
Delivering a massive 4,000 HP, the Thales UK operated RAF Cranwell centrifuge facility will also be used to trial and test new safety equipment to be used on fast jet aircraft and by the pilots ensuring that testing can be done in a benign environment before being trialled in live flight. The 39-tonne centrifuge has seen Thales UK team up with world leading centrifuge specialists AMST from Austria in order to design and build the equipment.
It is worth noting here that Thales UK and its predecessor companies have a very long history of supporting the Royal Air Force in pilot and air crew training. Indeed, the company can claim to have supplied in excess of 300 simulators for over 60 different aircraft platforms since 1937. As an example, Thales UK run training simulation training facilities at RAF Marham and RAF Lossiemouth have been responsible for continuous training of all RAF Tornado pilots and navigators for the past thirty years.
In respect of the RAF Cranwell High G Trainer facility operation Thales UK will operate the facility for the next three years with a team of 10 people. The facility will be used by all fast jet pilots progressing through the UK Military Flying Training System (MFTS) and by each pilot on a five-year required refresher basis throughout the rest of their flying careers in order to ensure that all known techniques used to handle High-G forces in flight are regularly updated. It is envisaged that up to 300 aircrew will receive training on the centrifuge each year.
The RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine (RAF CAM) which is planned to move to RAF Cranwell from its current location at RAF Henlow soon and which I assume that the Thales UK operated centrifuge facility will again be part of (as it was when the former RAF School of Aviation Medicine was based at RAE Farnborough) is an internationally recognised organisation comprising highly specialised teams of Aviation and Space Medicine professionals and support staff.
This being a long time specialist area of expertise for me although one that I rarely write on, suffice to say that I have regularly visited RAF CAM at RAF Henlow on several occasions over the past twenty year as I had also done when it was located at Farnborough. I regard RAF CAM as being a vital and all too rarely sung part of RAF capability and expertise providing, as it does, advice and expertise in Aviation and Space Medicine, focusing on advancing knowledge through the delivery of training to UK military aviators and medics through a programme of research.
RAF CAM’s mission has always been about delivering expertise and high quality training in aviation, occupational, environmental medicine and related sciences to support current and future Air Operations. Furthermore, the RAF CAM mission is to provide a full spectrum of evidence-based, air-minded medical and other innovative support that enables delivery of air power in a complex, contested and connected operational space.
What has been achieved in building the new Centrifuge facility at RAF Cranwell in such a relatively short space of time is remarkable. I note that at the formal opening of the facility yesterday Thales UK CEO, Victor Chavez said that ““Only 24 months ago we cut the turf to set this project on its way, so to see the centrifuge in full operation is a testament to great collaborative working from Thales, DE&S and the RAF”. Allow me to second that!
(G-Force and G-Loc Explained)
In military air power parlance, G-Force is the amount of ‘pull’ measured on turning an aircraft in the air. Without specialist equipment and training of the pilots who fly these highly sophisticated aircraft the generally accepted norm that without using specialist High G flight suit equipment the human body can take a maximum 5-G before they might pass out.
Military fast jet pilots can and regular do undertake 8-G and 9-G turns. On turning the aircraft hard at say 8-G a pilot will be forced down in his seat and, in the absence of wearing a G-suit, blood would flow away from the brain down to the legs. At that level the helmet on the head would feel as if it weighed 8 times its actual weight. Wearing a G-suits which contains a bladder that, when high G-forces are encountered, automatically clamps the legs forcing blood back up through all parts of the body and particularly to the brain, have been in use since the early 1950’s and over the years has become far more sophisticated. Without using such equipment in a High G situation puts the pilot at serious risk of experiencing sudden onset of G-Loc meaning that he/she could struggle to stay awake or at worst, pass out completely. While the equipment provided to ensure against this is superb it is necessary that all pilots are trained to understand the complexities of High-G and how they should handle it. The Centrifuge facility is used for this purpose.
Just as pilots are trained in relation to understanding the dangers of Hypoxia (recognising lack of oxygen) they are also required to train in the centrifuge to understand the complexities of High G. This will include undertaking of straining manoeuvres during which one is required to tense everything up, hold your breath and then breathe only in very short bursts in order to pull against G-forces and hopefully force blood back to the brain. Having myself gone through this process many years ago when the RAF School of Aviation Medicine was based at RAE Farnborough I can say that this is absolutely essential training.
Negative G is when you are pushed into weightlessness.
CHW (London – 5th February 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785