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Machine simulates river experience

Dec. 18, 2013 @ 06:48 AM

HUNTINGTON -- A large portion of West Virginia's economy passes by Huntington each day, and many residents may not even see it happening.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates the state's waterways and ports account for $1.6 billion of the state's economy as well as 9,980 of its jobs, which made the need for a simulator at the waterways academy all the more necessary, said Capt. John Whiteley, director of the Inland Waterways Academy at Mountwest Community and Technical College.

"In Huntington, like many other cities on a river, people don't realize there's a river out there," he said. "When they built the floodwalls in these cities, you couldn't see the rivers anymore. They don't realize how much traffic travels on the river and how important it is to our economy."

The Full Mission Wheelhouse Simulator was unveiled to the legislators, media and the public during an event at the waterways academy, which shares space with the Tri-State Fire Academy along W.Va. 2.

The simulator includes seven visual channels to give pilots- and captains-in-training a 180-degree view forward from the wheelhouse and a channel that allows them to see the view behind them. The channels simulate the river settings at busy inland ports including Cinicinnati, New Orleans and the Port of Huntington Tri-State, which is the largest inland port in the United States, Whiteley said.

Whiteley also has the ability to simulate water and weather conditions as well as scenarios with other water bound traffic to test the capabilities of the nearly 500 students that come through the program each year.

"The biggest thing is safety. We use a simulator to train people safely," he said. "If you take a brand new guy going through Cincinnati, Cincinnati has five bridges you have to go through and they're not lined up, so you have to learn how to wiggle your way through the bridges. If you miss, you knock down the bridge. With this, if you hit the bridge, it says, 'OK. Let's start again,' and there's no damage."

Once students have completed training there, Whiteley said they are on track to start careers that could put them in the six-figure salary range within eight to 10 years.

Before the simulator was built at the waterways academy, the nearest wheelhouse simulators to Huntington were in Paducah, Ky., and Virginia Beach, Va.

Funding for the simulator came through a grant partnership with the Marshall University Research Corporation and the Rahall Transportation Institute.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., recited the statistics that illustrated the economic impact of the state's waterways, and he pointed to the motto of the American Waterway Operators Association, "Barges are Beautiful."

"I went to Congress believing transportation builds jobs," Rahall said. "That's the motto of the Rahall Transportation Institute. In my book that's the real beauty."

Follow Reporter Lacie Pierson on Twitter, @LaciePiersonHD.

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