The site of Williams Gateway Airport ceased being a military base in 1993, but the airport in southeast Mesa remains home to the Air Force Research Laboratory.
The lab has 10 buildings covering 6.5 acres at the former base with about 200 workers, a $35 million budget and an estimated $100 million economic impact, said Col. Curtis Papke, division chief.
“It’s not a huge impact,” he said. “But it’s important to a small area.” Where the lab makes a bigger impact is the field. The lab develops tools and methods for training fighter pilots without the pilots leaving the ground.
“The idea is to eliminate the kinds of mistakes you make with on-the-job training,” senior researcher Wink Bennett said.
Flight simulators developed in Mesa are used at the lab and four Air Force bases. One pilot who flew in Iraq told instructors that he felt been there before after his training on a simulator at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. The simulators have been developed over the past quarter of a century at the Mesa facility, evolving from monochrome green screens to full-color images with a panoramic field of vision similar to that of a cockpit.
With the lights dimmed, the test bed area of the lab resembles a large video arcade. There is some similarity between the Air Force simulators and those available at an arcade or on a home computer, Lt. Col. Stu Rodgers said. The home versions simulate events that look like they would be possible but aren’t, Rogers said.
“One of the main differences is the underlying physics in the software,” Rodgers said. The lab’s simulator has the same capabilities — and limitations — as a F-16 or F-18 would. The next challenge is to make the simulators’ images clearer; the images are about as clear as someone with 20/80 vision.
Rodgers said the simulators are useful for long-distance air combat maneuvers, but high-resolution imagery is needed to train for ground-to-air combat. Researchers said they hope a 20/20 vision image will be available for training in the next couple of years. The lab also is developing a night-goggle vision simulator, which should be ready early next year, senior researcher Liz Martin said.