TAMPA — On any given day, military pilots and flight crews from countries such as Peru, Japan or Sweden are sequestered in flight simulators near Tampa International Airport, training to confront hurricanes or enemy fire and learning how to care for wounded warriors in flight.
Across the country and across the globe, flight simulators built and equipped by the Tampa company CAE USA are in use for military purposes and also in civil aviation. The company builds 75 percent of the world’s flight simulators and also trains pilots at its Tampa campus.
Some 500 CAE employees, many of them engineers, are responsible for completing the simulation systems that prepare the U.S. military and pilots worldwide to train for real-world issues they may encounter. Chances are, the pilot and crew on the flight from your local airport have at one time trained on a flight simulator created by CAE.
Last month, a Russian-made Antonov An-124 — the world’s second-largest aircraft — flew into Tampa International to pick up a CAE flight simulator to deliver to the Royal Danish Navy. The week before, a CAE simulator left Tampa for the Australian military.
The simulators are made to look and feel like C-130 airplane cockpits — the worldwide mainstay among cargo and troop-carrier aircraft for decades — or Seahawk helicopters, among other aircraft. They are meant to immerse flight crews in a realistic environment so that when they do face real issues, such as enemy fire, they will be ready, said CAE President and General Manager Ray Duquette.
“We do both training and mission rehearsal with multiple simulators networked. A crew may do a briefing just like they would for a real flight, then experience threats against them like they’ll see in the field,” Duquette explained. “We replicate what we believe will happen” for airplane and helicopter pilots, as well as those operating Predator and Reaper drones.
Pilots experience engine failure and learn how to get to the wounded on the ground, and crews learn how to treat patients evacuated from war zones.
“We’re really trying to accelerate the experience for the crews,” said Chris Stellwag, CAE’s Tampa spokesman. Like a military officer once told him, “it’s the process of putting old heads on young shoulders.”
“Right now, we’ve got five C-130 simulators on site and they’re all different,” Duquette said. Last month, pilots from the Chilean Air Force used one simulator while the U.S. Coast Guard trained on another. Crews from Poland, Afghanistan, Sweden and South Africa also were training at the Tampa campus that day.
CAE USA reaches nearly every continent, but there are some countries it cannot do business with for security reasons — Syria, Iran, North Korea, China and Venezuela.
“It’s experience you need before going in harm’s way,” said Duquette, a former U.S. Marine pilot who served in the military for 29 years. “It’s not just airplanes. It’s also cars, trucks and tanks.”
Duquette, who also sits on the board of the Florida High Tech Corridor, said much of the brain power working to create simulation software and conduct training for CAE USA comes from the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, all schools to which the company contributes scholarships. CAE has found that job recruits from Florida institutions are just as well educated as those from universities like Georgia Tech and Purdue, but they are more likely to stay because they have local ties.
In addition to its work with flight simulators, CAE also creates virtual patients that military medical personnel use for training. The “bodies,” which can bleed, scream and wince, are produced in Sarasota and are a growing part of CAE’s business.
It is also working more on creating virtual scenarios that can be used by first responders and emergency operations crews in preparation for events like floods, hurricanes or snowstorms.
The company has more than 60 training centers worldwide where some 120,000 pilots and crew members go for simulator training each year. In Tampa specifically, about 1,200 come for C-130 air crew and maintenance training.
Defense and security accounts for 40 to 45 percent of CAE’s revenue, or about $750 million annually, Stellwag said. The simulators the company builds for the military can run from $5 million to $50 million each. Civilian aircraft simulators sell for $10 million to $12 million.
In its last fiscal year, CAE made about $1.6 billion in revenue. The defense and security business unit accounted for about 40 percent of revenue, with the civil business unit accounting for about 55 percent of the company’s revenue. Health care accounted for another 5 percent of revenue.
With the acquisition of a NATO training center recently, the defense business will probably be responsible for closer to 43 or 44 percent of the company’s overall revenue this fiscal year, Stellwag said.
CAE has about 8,000 employees worldwide. Its parent company is located in Montreal.
“We do everything we can to achieve flawless execution,” Duquette said. “We’re on the tip of the spear of technology.”
The C-130 aircraft, for example, have been around for decades but have been upgraded through the years. CAE keeps on top of those upgrades so the experience pilots and crew members get is identical or nearly so to experiencing the planes they actually fly.
CAE USA is among the top 100 employers of military veterans nationwide. Some 60 to 70 percent of the 1,000 employees across the country are former military.