U.S. Navy recruits get taste of trials at sea — without having to leave port
Recruit training in the U.S. Navy has taken a big step into the future using simulation technology by way of a mock destroyer called the USS Trayer to create the feel and sights that fleet sailors experience. Youthful sailors at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill., began using the Battle Stations 21 Trainer early this summer, and it is now a regular part of recruit training.
The Trayer is a unique training system that combines theatrical lighting and sets, realistic simulation, theme-park-attraction technology and experienced fleet sailors who train, test and instill teamwork in the recruits.
The Trayer, also known as Battle Stations 21 Trainer (BST 21), is located in a new $82 million, 157,000-square-foot building along with headquarters for Recruit Training Command and the Recruit Division Commander’s School. The trainer is a cleverly constructed combination of plywood and strobe lights that, Navy officials said, will enable the service to better instill skills, tradition, and its core values of honor, courage and commitment.
Recruits must complete a rigorous eight-week curriculum at Great Lakes to prepare them for the Navy and the fleet. Not every sailor will report to a ship, but most should expect sea duty at some point in their career. So when new sailors do report to a ship, it is imperative they immediately be capable of serving in basic roles such as damage control. After all the physical training, marksmanship drills, marching and academic classes, BST 21 is the final exam.
“It is matched to the curriculum,” said Rear Adm. Arnie Lotring, commander of Naval Service Training Command.
ALMOST THE REAL THING
The experience begins in the evening after another arduous day during recruits’ seventh week of boot camp. Recruits are led into a “warehouse,” where they are briefed, then proceed onto the “pier,” which resembles Pier 8 at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Va. There they see the replica of a Navy surface combatant, the Trayer.
Efforts to create a realistic environment have aided the educational experience. Everything about the Trayer has been designed to immerse the recruits in an illusion of reality, from the sounds of helicopters flying overhead to bird droppings on the fenders. The ship is surrounded by 90,000 gallons of water, sloshing around the way it would alongside a pier. The lighting, smells and sound effects create a realistic atmosphere for the nightly “voyage” from Norfolk to Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, Va., and back.
To make the BST 21 training environment authentic, care was given to engage all the senses in a powerful way from the moment recruits “step into the story,” said Rick Bluhm, the project’s art director. “They are invited into the story in mission briefings when they are given the requirements for the mission by the [commanding officer]. Tension is initiated through the use of ‘live news broadcasts.’
“When they step out onto the pier, they are presented with the stunning illusion of a full-size destroyer moored to a pier in rippling ocean water. They hear realistic surround-sounds of equipment, workers, seagulls and helicopters. They feel the sea air blowing and smell the brine, fuel and oil. The textures and lighting on the pier facades and the ship are all real to the touch.”
Key members of the contracting team embarked on actual combatants and visited Norfolk and Yorktown to get a better sense of what they were emulating. The Trayer contains a number of interior fixtures from decommissioned combatants, and still others fabricated from molds made from the genuine articles. It is impossible to tell what is real and what is a foam casting — at least when racing through the ship with a fire hose.
After loading stores, recruits tend the lines and get the ship underway. Then, while they are inside the Trayer, the trainers quickly change the pier façade from Norfolk to Yorktown, a manual process that takes about 10 minutes. When the recruits emerge, the location will appear totally different.
“The use of scenery, lighting and sound is particularly effective in creating the two ports,” said Bluhm, who worked with James McHugh Construction Co.’s design-build team under Bob Weis Design Island, Orlando, Fla., to direct the creative elements of scenery, props, audio, lighting and special effects.
“We actually went underway on the USS Ross from Norfolk to Yorktown, which is the journey emulated in the Battle Stations 21 story,” Bluhm said. “We were able to derive two very different looks from these locations. Buildings at Norfolk are primarily red-brick and painted in yellow tones, and surrounding fence is laced with redwood-colored slats. Yorktown structures, in contrast, are light blue cinder block, concrete and aluminum. We created scenery that opened like a storybook, telescoped, or revolved, to change the entire scene.”
“The integration of the pier space containing the ship mockup between the serialized training rooms and the ceremonial classroom and office building, along with the entry sequence bringing recruits from their day-to-day environment on the base into a world of mystery and discovery was the principal architectural solution for the building,” said Mark McVay of SmithGroup, the project’s lead architects.
The Battle Stations 21 project is just part of the overarching $750 million recapitalization of Recruit Training Command than has been underway for a decade. Great Lakes is the only U.S. Navy boot camp, and the military construction program included three drill halls, 14 barracks and a huge fitness center able to accommodate 1,800 recruits simultaneously. Lotring said the time was right to take advantage of advances in training and simulation to migrate the old “legacy” Battle Stations training to something more meaningful.
Capt. Bob Gibbs, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NavFac) Midwest, said he and his staff helped take the pressing need to create the culminating event for Navy boot camp and find a state-of-the-art solution that would fit within the Navy’s budget. The old stovepiped way of doing things would be to take that requirement, put it out for bid, select a contractor and monitor construction to ensure the government received a quality product at a fair price.
But this wasn’t just a building, Gibbs added. The Navy wasn’t sure of the best way to conduct the “final exam,” and wasn’t fully aware of the possibilities.
“We gave them the overall idea, and our contractors came in and gave us their vision,” Gibbs said. “We became partners. They told us what the state of the art was, and what the realm of the possible was. We let the experts tell us how far we could really go.”
Chicago-based McHugh Construction, a traditional construction company, won the bid and teamed with a multifaceted list of subcontractors with considerable experience in training and simulation. The project included creating videos and computer interfaces, integrating systems, and developing software.
Typically, trainers or simulators have two separate contracts, said Sheila Donna Sheridan, senior project manager with McHugh’s Training and Simulation Division.
“One contract is awarded to build a facility, and another to create and install the trainer or simulator,” she said. “Never before had they merged the two into one contract. Also, a first was the addition of the entertainment-industry experts to create a sense of total immersion. Still another first was NavFac and [Naval Air Systems Command] working together on one project. Typically, NavFac will contract to build the building and NavAir would contract for the trainer installation.”
The initial requirement was to provide a trainer that looked, acted, felt and even smelled like an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and which had the capability of repeating training sessions for a maximum of 352 recruits per night during a 12-hour session. It had to be able to capture results of the training objectives and be able to store that data.
Upon arrival, recruits get the ship underway and, over the course of the 12 hours, encounter the full spectrum of shipboard situations, including 17 scenarios that the recruits must approach as a team from simple tasks such as handling stores, to fire, flooding and smoke-filled compartments. Once the 12-hour evolution was complete, they dock the ship and assemble on the pier for their capping ceremony.
“After the job was awarded to McHugh, we were able to sit down with all involved and work as a think tank to develop what was commissioned on June 18, 2007, as the USS Trayer. The final result was a commingled effort by everyone involved,” Sheridan said. “We positioned the ship on the pier so that when the recruits came in for the first time, they would be overpowered by its presence. We also added a very theatrical element for their capping ceremony.”
McHugh had sole responsibility for design and construction of the BST 21 complex. This included a 50,000-square-foot administrative area in front of the trainer, the trainer itself and all sitework. McHugh used 14 design companies from nine states that had to be coordinated with on a regular basis. Monthly design meetings were held all over the nation, from California to Florida.
McHugh and its partners, along with all the respective Navy offices, worked well together, Gibbs said.
“It was an extremely tight schedule,” he said. “We broke ground in October of 2004 and turned the building over to the customer in February 2007. This included all of the design work, and getting all of this high-tech stuff to work together.”
The effort was not without its challenges.
“We were not familiar with working with the government, much less the military. Learning to communicate clearly with the Navy personnel has been our biggest challenge on this project,” said David MacMurtry of Advanced Entertainment Technologies, one of the special-effects firms. “We thought we had a lot of acronyms in our industry. The military has us beat, hands down.”
The philosophy for BST 21 was to engage the senses, keep recruits in the experience and respect the mission. To accomplish that, the design team created the system of authentic immersive scenic trainers. The realism was created by sets and props, special-effects lighting, show action equipment, multimedia presentations, sound effects and atmospherics.
Contractors will operate and maintain the BST 21, and NavAir will manage the trainer. Scott Barnes of the command’s Training Systems Directorate said confusion and urgency can be enhanced when the recruits enter a compartment.
“It’s noisy. It’s dark, and there are flashing strobe lights,” Barnes said. “We use a mixture of 10 percent glycerin and 90 percent water to generate smoke.”
The mass casualty drill takes place in the mess decks, which have collapsed on the berthing compartment below. Recruits must look for survivors in the dark, smoky, debris-strewn space. Mannequin “casualties” emit groans, triggered by infrared technology, if recruits get close to them.
“The ‘injured’ dummies scream, moan or make faint breathing sounds,” Barnes said, “thanks to built-in MP3 players, as recruits attempt to rescue them.”
“They’re so realistic they were really unsettling at first,” McHugh’s Sheridan said.
NOT AN AMUSEMENT PARK
For MacMurtry, the BST 21 mission was fundamentally different than theme park attractions he’s worked on.
“In theme park control systems, data collection is usually a secondary feature to the control system, used for monitoring ride systems and guest statistics and providing diagnostic information to the user. But in a simulator designed to determine if the recruits have achieved their training objectives, data collection is a primary goal.
“We provided the Overall Supervisor System (OSS), which handles the overall system control, as well as the life safety monitoring and all of the atmospheric and mechanical special effects, including smoke, scent and water effects. One of the many duties of the OSS is to interface with the Training Management System (TMS) provided by GlobalSim and the Audio/Video Lighting System provided by Edwards Technologies. The TMS, when commanded by the facilitators using the wireless Hand Held Evaluation Tools, sends cue information to the OSS, and the OSS sends that cue information on to start the various scenarios.”
That process is quite involved because multiple rooms operate at the same time but do not necessarily start or end at the same moment; each facilitator handles the stopping and starting of each scenario based on his recruits being in place at the correct time, MacMurtry said. “This was a big change for us coming from the theme park world, where everything is automated and timed to happen at exactly the same time and same way for every single guest.”
Retired Navy Capt. Paul Rinn commanded the guided-missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts when it struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf on April 14, 1988. Despite massive damage, solid training by Rinn’s crew saved the ship.
“There is no substitute for realistic training at every level of the Navy,” Rinn said. “Indoctrinating those about to go to sea in ships with the importance of the chain of command, proper procedures, proven methodologies and established best-practice techniques is the key to professionalism and early success in the Navy at sea.”
“In a real situation, what do we really expect them to be able to do?” Lotring asked. “That’s what we want to train them for here, and instill them with that confidence.”