Last evening’s BBC Radio 4 ‘File on 4’ investigation highlighting what the programme described as being a ‘backlog’ of 350 Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army military officers waiting to move through the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) and that it now takes “an average of seven and a half years” for a trainee pilot to progress all the way through the various aspects of flight training in order to achieve what “used to be achieved in three years” is regrettable in that while it tells one half of the story – the one that the broadcaster wants you to hear – it ignores the rest and the real reason why?
Whilst I am not about to dispute that the number of officers who, having come through the Initial Officer Training, have as the programme suggests risen from 169 to 350 over the past year, it is regrettable that the programme set out to blame a combination of the Ascent Partnership and Royal Air Force without providing sufficient facts and reasoning.
From the outset, it is in my view important to realise how the process of moving flying training for the legacy based system to that of the UKMFTS, a concept that aimed to bring all elements of armed forces flight training under one umbrella organisation, has over a period of time been organised.
There are six individual elements of military flying training – Elementary Flying Training (EFT) Basis Flying Training (BFT) Multi Engine Pilot Training (MEPT) Rotary Wing Training (RW) Rear Crew (RC) and Advanced Fast Jet Training (AJFT). Rather than attempt to move all elements of flying training onto the UKMFTS system the MOD chose to do this in stages spread over a timetable of eight or nine years. Doing it this way ensured that existing legacy based contracts could work through until their natural end day, changes could be better co-ordinated and planned and that up-front investment required could be spread over a longer period.
Not surprisingly, UKMFTS was not only designed to be more efficient way of training making use of a roughly 50/50 basis of simulation based synthetic training along with actual flying training but also one that could reduce costs for the MOD.
The process of change to UK MFTS started around seven years ago with the Advanced Fast Jet Training at RAF Valley. In order to achieve this the MOD acquired 28 new BAE Systems Hawk T Mk 2 military jets which would form the future of actual flight training whilst ASCENT (a 50/50 partnership Lockheed Martin and Babcock International) who would be responsible for conducting AJFT training invested in new infrastructure at RAF Valley along with state-of-the-art synthetic based training systems that would be used to training pilots not only to fly the jets but also in regard full mission capability.
Unlike on subsequent UK MFTS awards where the training aircraft and helicopters were acquired by Ascent or those with whom it partnered, the Hawk T Mk2 aircraft at RAF Valley are owned by the MOD. UKMFTS Programme Director Air Commodore Simon Edwards was quoted on the ‘File on 4’ programme talking about aircraft availability often being seriously low although he did not say that this is in big part reasoned by the MOD having failed to order sufficient numbers of spares engines and other component parts required to support the aircraft in the MRO package
At RAF Valley Ascent work in partnership with the Royal Air Force (1V and 25 Squadron’s) – these providing trainers and who are responsible for actual flying and coursework training. The ‘File on 4’ programme mentioned shortfall of trainers and I do not disagree that this has been a particularly difficult problem. Again, the problem here is predominantly due to the woeful nature of the MOD remuneration package or ‘offer’ and that this often means that attractions to leave the RAF and make better use of the considerable range of skills and talent that they clearly have with air forces abroad are too great to be ignored.
That aside and while I do not deny there have been a number of problems in the first stage of UKMFTS at RAF Valley it si a great pity that the many successes that the Ascent Partnership working with 1V and 25 Squadron were completely ignored by the ‘File on 4’ programme.
Next up in regard of standing up another section of UKMFTS was the change over from legacy based training of the Elementary Flying Training (EFT) based at RAF Cranwell and the nearby Barkston Heath airfield. This, together with that of Rotary Wing Training (RWT) at RAF Shawbury only started in 2018. Multi-Engine Pilot Training at RAF Cranwell only started in late 2018 and last but by no means least, Basic Flying Training which at the time of writing continues to be achieved on a legacy based training system at RAF Linton-on-Ouse using obsolete Tucano aircraft ahead of this important requirement planned to move onto the UKMFTS process in new facilities at RAF Valley in October 2019 with students using a mix of synthetic based training combined with actual flying training on a fleet of new Texan aircraft.
The ‘File on 4’ programme emphasised on safety related and certification issues currently affecting the new Texan aircraft and this meaning that they cannot fly over the sea. Certification is clearly both important and very necessary and whilst I do not deny the issue I am satisfied that it will be satisfactorily resolved.
The point to note here and one that was ignored by ‘File on 4’ is that UKMFTS has been planned to be implemented over eight or nine years and to not be fully operational until late 2020. Teething problems were bound to occur and I am not with reservation myself in respect of the number so the various aircraft involved being too few. I am concerned that the ‘File on 4’ programme ignored the planned transition of UKMFTS implementation by the MOD and that in no way was it expected to be fully operational by now. It is unfortunate that the number of trainee pilots stuck in the system has risen as a result of the transition but given the circumstances, hardly surprising. Moreover, what the ‘File on 4’ programme closed its eyes to was that knowing that this situation would arise why did the MOD carry on recruiting so many would-be pilots into the system?
Obviously it is very disappointing as it is very unfortunate for the 350 RAF, Royal Navy and Army junior officers that are currently stuck in the system. It is of course all too easy to blame the contractors involved and they may well need to share in some of the blame. But, knowing the UKMFTS system and process as I do the primary fault or blame if you like, lies not with the UKMFTS Ascent operator but on timing in relation to the changeover of all the various flying training segments from that of being legacy based onto the UK MFTS training process.
Take the Elementary Training system for example and which the ‘File on 4’ programme suggested was where, following Initial Officer Training’ graduation from Cranwell College and in which we are told that the highest number of students would appear to be stuck in a holding pattern, the requirement to transition from legacy to UKMFTS was completely ignored. Worth noting here that the UKMFTS based system for Elementary Flying Training at RAF Cranwell and nearby RAF Barkston Heath had only opened its doors in January 2018 with the first student flying in April 2018 and first solo flight achieved in the following month.
It is absolutely right that, given the huge complexities of moving from legacy based training to UKMFTS that a period of transition is built in to allow for such a dramatic change in the way we train our pilots today. However, it is as I have mentioned regrettable that the MOD failed to halt or even slow down the recruitment process during a period of great transition and change and that is at the heart of the issue being raised. Had the MOD slowed the recruitment process the issue being discussed today may not have arisen.
I am certainly not going to suggest that UKMFTS is perfect or that the MOD is investing enough in training. If we are to achieve all of our future aims more investment will be required particularly in relation to IDT (International Defence Training) but allowing for the transition requirement and of the MOD once again failing to invest enough in what is a critical areas, I personally believe that as it works through the many difficult transition problems being faced and notwithstanding that all of us wish to see the backlog of students currently stuck in the system being reduced, given that many of the issues being faced are outside of its direct control, that UKMFTS and the ASCENT partnership are working remarkably well.
CHW (London – 6th March 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785