Making Connections Through Simulation

F-5N Tiger II Simulator at NAS Fallon
F-5N Tiger II Simulator at NAS Fallon. Photo Courtesy Joseph K. Robinson

The simulator operator warned me that I might get sick. I stepped down from the platform into the cockpit, mentally preparing myself for the nausea I should expect to follow. I was unreasonably nervous as the operator glided me into place. As I began my first flight in an F-5N Tiger II simulator (usually referred to as just “the sim”), I had to remind myself that when I crashed, it wouldn’t be as dramatic as I feared.

The uploaded flight map allowed me to explore the Lahontan Valley region of Nevada and the Reno-Tahoe area. I flew from Naval Air Station Fallon to the edge of Lake Tahoe, and back around through Reno, throwing in some barrel rolls along the way. I explored from above my then neighborhood, wound along the Truckee River into downtown, and finally landed, though somewhat erratically, at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

My central observation from this experience: flying is difficult. After crashing and burning on my next two attempts at landing, I called it a day. Though mentally exhausted, I was somewhat proud of my one successful flight and lack of motion sickness. More importantly, I had managed to connect a lot of dots in my experience that day. Having recently married a naval aviator, I had found myself in unfamiliar territory. From almost one day to the next I was immersed in a community of fighter pilots and their families. Most conversations were difficult to follow, and at times even irritating with an endless stream of jargon flowing from one description or explanation to the next. I had a very limited understanding of these pilots’ daily job description, which was only a small part of my greater struggle to grasp the larger experience of military life.

Flying in the sim that day grounded my understanding of base operations at NAS Fallon, and exposed just how little I knew of the institution that now heavily affected my life. While only a glimpse into the more complex operations undergone by naval aviators, the sim helped materialize part of the purpose and activities of a squadron in a particular time and place. That being said, I had little idea that the F-5N Tiger II sim enacts a simulation of simulation. F-5s are not currently flown by the United States in combat, and are only used for training exercises in simulated warfare. Therefore, neither the plane nor simulator is equipped with bomb or missile capabilities, making it a lot less entertaining for those who are seeking more of a gaming experience.

Explained to me by its operator, and reiterated by another pilot in the squadron, the simulator serves several purposes. While the predominant use of the F-5 sim is for procedural, instrument and emergency training for all aircrew currently flying the F-5, visitors can also schedule times to experience the sim. In terms of training purposes, pilots can log up to 10 of their 100 required flight hours for the year. This is beneficial for both the pilots and the Navy. First, it is a lower cost alternative to training in the actual jet, saving on fuel and potential damage to the aircraft. It is also the safer alternative for pilots learning brand new procedures to execute missions, dealing with emergencies in a near life-like environment, and imitating meteorological flight conditions for instrument training.

The sim’s other role is introducing people to a flight environment who wouldn’t otherwise experience it, whether they be other sailors, citizens, families on tours, or a lone and intrigued cultural anthropologist (met with a lot of confused looks). As the operator explained, “the simulator often joins pilots, their missions and civilians in the sense that people can come fly in the sim to get a better understanding of what they do at this particular Naval Air Station…It’s about flight training, fighter and strike tactics. It materializes for them through the experience of the sim.“

Though interesting on a personal level, this also resonated for me on a professional one. Having recently taken on a collaborative project investigating the reuse of military waste and the (often unexpected) civil-military relationships it fosters, I realized the simulator could also be perceived to generate new connections and understanding for those who stepped inside.

It was soon after this experience, sitting on a flight between Reno and Philadelphia, that I came across James Fallows’ article, The Tragedy of the American Military, which spoke on the growing divide between America’s service members and its civilian population. Commonly been referred to as the civil-military gap, the author describes the dwindling public connections with the military, and the subsequent consequences caused by resulting complacency. While our nation’s admiration towards the military is evidenced by the multitudes of events, discounts and other methods of “giving back” oriented towards the military, many are concerned that a general disengagement with its operations is growing.

I have personally encountered the uncomfortable “thank you for your service” to which I awkwardly respond that my husband is the one in the military…I’ll pass it on, and so forth. Though well intentioned, these expressions of gratitude point to the “support the troops” rhetoric that Roger Stahl (2010) claims has redirected our attention. As he explains, “support the troops” enforces a sense that opposition to policy is the same as opposition to the soldier, often suppressing dissent. Rather than equating the two, he reasons that it is a citizen’s patriotic duty to engage in a deeper discussion surrounding the use of the military in order to avoid the misuse of the soldier (2010: 29). But how can a citizen body engage in such debates when cloaked with the disengaged attitudes that Fallows points out?

It is not reasonable to expect that everyone who steps into an F-5 sim is seeking a deeper engagement with adversary or dissimilar air combat training. However, it can foster unexpected connections as it brings civilians into contact with the military.

Priscilla Bennett is a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Binghamton U, SUNY. Her doctoral research focuses on technoscience, multispecies relations, and the role of the public in the innovation process. She is also undertaking in a collaborative research project investigating the reuse of military waste and the civil-military relations it fosters.

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