News that the UK Ministry of Defence has committed £372 million to be invested on various individual contracts covering continued in-service maintenance and support for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy BAE Systems Hawk TMk1 and TMk2 (Advanced Jet Trainer) military aircraft is extremely welcome if hardly that surprising. In its most modern form the Hawk TMk2 offers a digital revolution in training that allows accurate and timely mission planning, briefing, rehearsals, mission execution and debriefs, all of which are fully linked to a student’s Training Management System. It is new generation technology throughout with heads-up display, full-colour Multi-Functional Displays supported by the latest generation of mission computers that can provide display data that is fully representative of combat aircraft such as Typhoon and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
For many years TMk1 and TMk2 Hawk aircraft have been the primary aircraft used to train Royal Air Force and Royal Navy fast jet pilots. The record of success of both Hawk and the training provided is formidable and having myself regularly engaged with 1V Squadron in the Moran Building at RAF Valley together with Ascent management team responsible for the operation of MFTS fast jet training and had the opportunity to fly with them I need no further convincing that fast jet pilot training in the UK is absolutely world class.
The 28 TMk2 Hawk aircraft that are the mainstay of the Ascent/1V Squadron operated combination of synthetic based and actual live flying training are all based at RAF Valley in Anglesey. 208(R) Squadron which is also based at RAF Valley and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary operates TMk1 Hawk aircraft on the advanced flying training and tactical weapons role. Both include international students, a vitally important element of UK based fast jet training capability particularly in terms of coalition-building, innovation and prosperity agenda requirement and importantly, in respect of defence diplomacy. Hawk TMk1 aircraft are also operated by 100 Squadron based at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire on a multitude of training related tasks, by the Red Arrows based at RAF Scampton, by the Royal Navy at RNAS Culdrose and by the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.
For both BAE Systems and Babcock International the contracts placed by the MOD are I believe worth an estimated £300 million. Importantly, they will sustain approximately 600 highly skilled engineering based jobs at the various Royal Air Force and Royal Navy military bases involved. The servicing contracts cover aircraft maintenance, fleet management together with technical and engineering support for Hawk TMk1 and TMk2 jets. This is in addition to modification and obsolescence management along with the maintenance of master documentation. BAE Systems has long provided end-to-end MRO support for Hawk customers of which in excess of 1,000 aircraft have now either been ordered or delivered.
The ability of the operator to have maximum numbers of aircraft available is paramount to efficiency of the whole fast jet training operation. BAE Systems and Babcock International have worked extremely hard to improve MRO and technical based support on the Hawk jet in order to deliver 95% availability and they remain confident of their ability to continue to deliver this. The need to continually improve efficiency is hugely important not only in terms of lowering cost of operation but also in viewing what more can be done to increase the number of aircraft hours.
But although we have a superb training system for fast jet pilots particularly in the existing No 1 Flying Training School based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse and at the UKMFTS Ascent Flying Training/RAF 1V Squadron partnership at RAF Valley do we have enough pilots? The answer is that we already have a shortfall of trained fast jet pilots and as far as I can see it is a situation that is likely to get worse before it gets better.
The conclusions of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2010) that were announced by the Prime Minister during October 2010 had a major impact on the training of pilots and weapons system operators. The decisions to withdraw the RAF and Royal Navy Harrier fleet, to cancel procurement of the Nimrod MRA4, and to reduce the RAF Tornado GR4 fleet by two squadrons had a serious impact on training requirement. Short term thinking by the MOD ruled and the problem that the Royal Air Force has today is in my view a direct result of this. The result of such large scale capability reductions in air power led to the ending of weapons system operator training and the disbanding of No 76 (Reserve) Squadron during May 2011. There was also to be a considerable amount of reduction in the number of student pilots undertaking basic fast-jet training on the Tucano at RAF Linton-on Ouse and this in turn led to the disbanding of No 207 (Reserve) Squadron in January 2012. Thankfully it was not all bad news and the role of No 1 Flying Training School today remains to provide basic fast-jet pilot training for Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Foreign & Commonwealth students in preparation for advanced training on the Hawk TMk1 and TMk2 aircraft, in the case of the latter aircraft, using formidable combination of synthetic/simulation based training with live flying at RAF Valley. Refresher and instructor training (QFI) for qualified RAF and Royal Navy pilots also continues at RAF Linton-on-Ouse.
I have over the past couple of weeks covered the separate issue of proposed changes to air cadet gliding and I do not propose to add further to these comments here except to remind how vitally important gliding, flight experience and other flying opportunities are for cadets and how this together with opportunities to fly with University Air Squadrons has long been a precursor for many to join the Royal Air Force. So it was, so it remains.
The much heralded positive changes that emerged from SDSR 2015 in respect of air power regeneration and capability enhancement have not surprisingly significantly increased demands on the Royal Air Force particularly in regard of requirements for fast jet pilot training. It is worth recalling here that SDSR 2010 had targeted a reduction of fast jet squadrons to just six following the final run down intention of Tornado GR4 squadrons that was and remains due to have occurred by March 2019. The intention to reduce the number of fast jet squadrons to what many of us believed at the time of the announcement was a dangerous and unacceptable new low was however to be thankfully reversed in SDSR 2015.
A lot of work went on behind the scenes to achieve this and while still below what many would describe as being the ‘ideal’ number of squadron SDSR 2015 did at least confirm that the Royal Air Force would stay at nine squadrons post the Tornado GR4 out-of-service date having been reached (this being facilitated primarily by the decision to retain Tranche 1 Typhoons). The move was universally welcomed both internally by the RAF and externally by commentators such as myself and when mention was made that there was a possible plan in existence to get to 10 squadrons eventually there was understandable amount of loud cheer.
Nine squadrons are better than six and ten, even if these are to be smaller squadrons than hitherto, is far better that nine. To achieve all this plans exist for better exploitation of advanced simulation based training and use of synthetics as opposed to actual flying in mission practice. It makes sense to do this in that it will allow a greater number of pilots to be sustained at high readiness from a broadly unchanged number of actual hours being flown. But the reality is that the Royal Air Force will be seriously short of trained pilots unless the whole more effort and investment is put into training.
The Royal Air Force is well aware that based on SDSR 2015 requirements it faces a shortfall in numbers of fully trained pilots. The training problem isn’t just about attracting and training enough new personnel it is also about retaining and training sufficient QFI’s (Qualified Flying Instructors). It takes a very long time to train a ‘trainer’ and once trained other more attractive doors are seemingly opened to them. Certainly it is a competitive market and many qualified ‘trainers’ have been attracted to Gulf based countries eager to employ them on much higher salaries. Moreover, the culture of ‘cuts’ since SDSR 2010 witnessed pilots having completed basic and initial training with no jobs to go too.
The problem is though understood and actions to increase the number of trained pilots is already in hand. As mentioned a few weeks ago following a private visit in which I spoke at RAF Cranwell and where Initial Officer Training and Elementary Flying Training (EFT) currently take place the intention is that due to a small element of course compression an additional course can now be accommodated.
I will cover detail of the planned new arrangements covering the announced next stage of the Military Flying Training (MFTS) programme that is planned to take over from the existing Tucano operated Basic Fast Jet training operated out of RAF Linton-on-Ouse later in this paper and note also that during April following a short period away a separate paper based on current operation and future plans for Rotary Wing Training based at RAF Shawbury will be published.
On the future Basic Fast Jet Training plan while the decision to award the programme to Ascent Flight Training has been welcomed there remain various concerns in relation to the original idea of moving the No 1 Flying Training School operation from Linton-on-Ouse to the originally suggested possibility of RAF Valley. A specific concern related to this was raised by me in a separate article written for the Royal Aeronautical Society ‘Aerospace’ journal last year and with good reasoning too.
Due to a number of fears including location where climate, environment and the envisioning that finding sufficient numbers of personnel willing to move to Valley might well be a problem I had made a strong plea to leave the replacement MFTS programme exactly where the existing No 1 Flying Training School is currently based at RAF Linton-in-Ouse. As far as I am aware, no location decision has yet been announced. Another possibility is that the Ascent operated programme that was awarded in February and that comes into effect three years from now might be moved to RAF Leeming.
While the planned investment in what we tend to call ‘Basic Flying Training’ is extremely welcome and, despite concerns over the rather small numbers of new aircraft that are planned to be acquired, the marked increase in synthetic based training that will significantly reduce emphasis on live-flying is still three years away from starting to operate. Until then the venerable and now ageing Tucano aircraft will be required to soldier on meaning that spare parts and maintenance could remain serious issues. Certainly the scope for efficiency gains to be made at Linton-on-Ouse or to increase the amount of pilot training look to me to be very limited.
I have previously talked in the issue of QFI retention at RAF Valley where a near 50/50 basis of synthetic based training to actual live flying is rightly considered to be a perfect balance within the UK MFTS programme. While the QFI shortage situation has I believed eased somewhat on a year ago it is still a potentially very serious issue particularly given the length of time it takes to train QFI’s and the need to generate more trained fast jet pilots quickly.
In any event, to achieve the underlying requirement will, if the number of fast jet pilots graduating is to be increased, also require an increase in the number of synthetic based training hours and of the actual flying hours operated on RAF Valley’s 28 Hawk T2’s. My understanding is that the number of contracted Hawk T2 flying hours is currently 9,200. If that is correct and if the maths suggesting that there is a possible shortfall around circa 100 trained pilots today and that may rise significantly higher between now and 2018/19 it appears to me that we should be aiming at a minimum 15% to 18% increase in throughput of pilot trainees that are currently going through both the first and second stage fast jet training system process. To achieve that may require additional investment.
Royal Air Force Manning Requirements covering all trades and professions are worked out at the beginning of each year based on what are called the Into Training Targets (ITT). Even though the ITT can and does fluctuate during the year my understanding is that it is already pointing to a sizeable shortage of trained fast jet pilots over the next few years.
We move on and it certainly isn’t all bad news. 22 Group of the RAF works extremely hard and the motivation to succeed is writ large all around you. It is not an easy job to get all the various pieces of the pilot training jigsaw in place and when policy that was announced in SDSR 2010 is reversed to a well-thought out strategy in SDSR 2015 time is required to get it right. All credit to the current Air Officer Commanding 22 Group, Air-Vice Marshal Andy Turner for his work in furthering the persistent pursuit of excellence that is the hallmark of 22 Group.
And then there is the Hawk jet itself, another piece of excellent UK sovereign capability built by BAE Systems and in operation with dozens of air forces around the world. As a fast jet trainer aircraft Hawk AJT is as I said earlier absolutely world class. With its digital glass cockpit layout featuring twin multifunction displays (MFD’s) Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC), Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) controls, two mission computers, Inertial Navigation/Global Positioning Systems (IN/GPS) with digital moving map for both navigation and weapon aiming accuracy, Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS), embedded-radar simulation capability, On-Board Oxygen System (OBOGS) plus full NVG (Night Vision Goggles) combined with power provided form the hugely reliable and efficient Rolls-Royce/Turbomeca Adour Mk 951 engine the Hawk TMk2 or AJT if you prefer is without doubt a very formidable fast jet training aircraft capability package. The TMk2 Hawk is currently the primary lead in trainer for Tornado GR4 and Typhoon jets in service with the Royal Air Force and with its similar cockpit layout and systems it has also been designed to be the lead in trainer for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft that the UK is acquiring for Carrier Strike.
For ASCENT, a now well bedded in partnership between Lockheed Martin and Babcock International and that at RAF Valley working in close harmony with 1V Squadron has been responsible for fast jet training since the 2008 award of the Military Flying Training System (MFTS) was made I consider that although the ride toward excellence has not been without a few bumps the level of quality and performance now being reached is formidable.
I suspect that being a Hon member of 1V Squadron that I have been rather fortunate to be able to observe the excellent partnership relationship that has been established between ASCENT and 1V Squadron grow in stature and I know that the strength of the relationship has been instrumental to the success of the venture.
Clearly, the further commitment to Hawk maintenance and support announced by the MOD is hugely important and at the same time we must not underestimate the amount of pressure the Royal Air Force is facing as it attempts to rebuild capability and resilience lost in the aftermath of the damaging SDSR 2010. Facing a shortfall of at least 100 fast jet pilots the need for training and indeed, a more forward thinking view in respect of retention has never been greater than now.
Located within the Moran Building at RAF Valley, a modern extremely well equipped building housing the entire Ascent led fast jet flying training system that includes a large range of synthetic based flying training devices, simulators, mission and flight planning and management systems within a network based synthetic training system the ASCENT/1V Squadron training model is recognised by air forces across the world as the model for training excellence. By virtue of the design capability that the UK has established in the now close to 50/50 mix of synthetic based to actual flying and having positioned itself as a world leader in both the technology and concept of fast jet training it is something of a great regret to me that while talking much about the innovation and prosperity agenda within SDSR 2015 the UK Government has so far failed to properly embrace the earnings and export potential that the UK clearly has in respect of the massive international defence training requirement. To do that of course requires long-term thinking, a belief in sovereign capability and the need for more investment in training.
In February this year Ascent, in partnership with the MOD was awarded contracts to deliver the prior stages of pilot training within the ongoing Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) through to 2033. A total investment of £1.1 billion was confirmed enabling Ascent to deliver the fixed wing element of training at a various (some yet to be confirmed) military air bases in the UK. As part of the investment, a contract worth approximately £500 million was signed with Affinity (a joint venture between Kellogg Brown and Root Ltd and Elbit Systems UK) in which the joint venture company will provide three different aircraft types as well as their maintenance and support to be used at different stages of the training. At the same time contracts were awarded by the MOD to Lockheed Martin and Babcock International to deliver all ground based training equipment and infrastructure requirements needed to support the delivery of the fixed wing training capability. Planned to be fully operational in 2019, fixed wing flying training will see students conduct Elementary Flying Training on the Grob 120TP ‘Prefect’ before going on to complete either Multi Engine Pilot Training on the Embraer ‘Phenom’ 100 and for the Basic Flying Training element, on the Beechcraft ‘Texan’ T-6C.
Edward “Ed” Strongman – Airbus Chief Test Pilot
It is with regret that I have to report the death over this past weekend of Edward “Ed” Strongman who had, until his retirement in late 2014, been the Chief Test Pilot for Airbus Defence and Space.
Having joined Airbus in 1995, Ed Strongman was initially Project Pilot for the A330/A340 family and was particularly closely involved with the development of the A340-600 which he piloted on its maiden flight in April 2001. Subsequently he worked on all Airbus aircraft and participated extensively in the A380 flight test development programme and in December 2009 captained the maiden flight of the A400M.
A veteran test pilot Ed Strongman was selected to attend the United States Air Force Test Pilot School (USAFTPS) at Edwards AFB, California in 1979 following five years spent on operations flying Royal Air Force Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft. After graduating from USAFTPS, he served for six years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Bedford flying a wide range of transports, fighters and helicopters. On leaving in 1986 as Commanding Officer of the Test Squadron he joined the UK CAA as a certification test pilot and was involved in regulatory approval of various jet and turboprop aircraft.
Ed Strongman had accumulated more than 11,000 flight hours of which more than 7,000 were in flight test. Born in Cornwall in 1949, he gained an engineering degree from Bristol University.
He is succeeded by his wife, three daughters and a son and I am sure that those who like myself knew or had met Ed will join with me in sending our deepest condolences to them at this time of great sadness and loss.
CHW (London – 29th March 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS