June 6, 2008 By Matthew Jones, The Virginian-Pilot
NORFOLK--When you're learning to drive a car, bumping into something can be a pain. When you're learning to drive a warship, a fender bender can put you in a world of hurt.
Enter that savior of both seacraft and careers: the simulator. The Navy unveiled its newest generation Thursday, offering a truer-to-life experience of sea life from the driver's seat.
The $3.5 million Navigation, Seamanship and Ship-handling Trainer complex at Norfolk Naval Station includes two full bridges, where crews can practice radar plotting and bridge navigation and management; and a bridge wing where they can practice mooring, getting under way and refueling at sea.
"It allows the junior officer to practice in really a no-risk environment," said Capt. Ken Krogman, head of training for Naval Surface Force Atlantic.
"If he hits the pier, so what? If he's too close to the oiler, so what? If he misses the man overboard, it's not a real man."
The simulator can mimic every type of ship in the fleet, from a seven-meter rigid inflatable boat to an aircraft carrier. It contains imagery for navigating all the major Navy ports, and software for the Panama and Suez canals is on the way.
Norfolk is the last of the Navy's seven major home-ports to get the system. The previous-generation simulators were concentrated in San Diego and Norfolk, meaning crews at those ports had to share simulator time with the remaining five.
Krogman said that when he was an ensign, sailors learned to drive a ship by driving a ship. The first simulators came into general use in the early 1990s, but they were rudimentary affairs with blocky graphics, limited motion models and much left to the imagination.
"Today's junior officers are of the video-game generation," he said. "They know a bad simulation when they see it."
The current software allows for the myriad variables crews face: wind, water depth, current, weather, sea state. It includes an audio track complete with wind noise, rolling waves and seabirds. And the sobering sound of a crash.
"It sticks in their minds if they hear a collision," Krogman said. "Then you can hit the reset button, debrief it and let them do it again."
In one of the simulation rooms Thursday, four junior officers from the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower manned the bridge.
They had just finished driving a Nimitz-class carrier in the sleety open sea. They were now steering a destroyer as it left Pearl Harbor in calm water on an overcast day.
"Ease rudder right five degrees," Ensign Chet Walker said, as he watched the 240-degree computerized view from the room's 13 windows.
"Ease rudder right, aye," replied Ensign Chad Gross from the helm.
"Rudder midships, aye. No new course given."
Back and forth, commands given, commands received as the ship eased forward.
The ship stopped dead in the water. The four debated what had just happened. Instructor Jack O'Neill appeared with the verdict: they'd run aground.
"It's a great opportunity to make a mistake without costing the government a bundle of money," Walker said.
Gross, like these other Eisenhower officers, had done his share of grunt work as a former enlisted sailor. So experiencing the Navy from the bridge was a singular experience.
"Driving an aircraft carrier...," he trailed off. "I don't know how to word it."