A MAJOR £90m deal has cemented the future of high-tech military training in South Oxfordshire for years to come.

Unbeknown to most Benson residents, pilots in the village near Wallingford are under siege most days from ‘virtual’ enemy fire, as they prepare for missions at a fraction of the real-life price.

Immersive helicopter simulators at RAF Benson harness technology to transform a hangar into the deserts of Afghanistan or tropics of the Caribbean, at the touch of a few buttons.

The Government has announced the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will invest £90m to continue operations at the Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility for another eight years.

Andy Naismith, managing director of the centre, said: “In many cases, simulation is better than real world training.

“You can’t tell the difference; you become so immersed in the operation. When you come out from night training it’s actually quite disorientating when it’s still daylight.”

The Government’s investment into the training hub, run by CAE Aircrew Training Services and founded in 1997, will sustain 70 jobs.

Crews from the RAF, Navy and Army will continue to benefit from the six Chinook, Puma and Merlin helicopter simulators, alongside comrades from a host of other nations who utilise them for training.

Mr Naismith stressed advantages including lower costs and much better safety when compared to practising in the midst of a war zone.

Russ Cole, who leads flight simulation for the MoD’s Defence, Equipment and Support team, said visuals and gaming technology had improved greatly since the scheme first started.

He said: “You really believe you are there. You see guys coming out [of the simulator] sweating; they are really pumped up. The real world jogs them back from where they’ve been.

“It’s realistic, demanding and really puts you right in the middle of it all. It really is immersive. It doesn’t matter what’s going on around you: when you’ve got missiles being fired at you, you react and you move.”

He said the average hourly cost of real-life training in such helicopters ranged from about £12,000 to £15,000, whereas the equivalent in the simulators cost just £1,000-£1,200.

Crews currently train about 25 per cent simulation and 75 per cent real-life, but the MoD wants to balance the split to half and half by the year 2020.

Mr Cole said the facility will offer 11,500 hours of training in the next year alone.

Bob Girling, chief simulation instructor at the facility, said: “It’s immensely valuable; it allows us the whole gambit of training. You’re saving time and effort in the real aircraft.

“It builds confidence and you’re able to experience environments that would be quite complex in the real world, in different conditions - from the desert to the snow and mountains of Norway.

“You can go anywhere you want - it’s limited only by your imagination.”

The simulators’ cockpits mirror those found in real helicopters, with computer screens in place of windows to replicate images that would be seen by pilots looking outside. Technology builds a three-dimensional picture of what they would see in reality, and programming can be adapted to vary weather conditions and introduce enemy battle.

The RAF Benson personnel who recently returned from the post-Hurricane Irma operation in the Caribbean are among those who prepared for their operation at the Benson simulators, familiarising themselves with challenges of new surroundings.

Though the Government’s funding only spans eight years, CAE’s contract for the training hub lasts until 2037.