Qioptiq logo Raytheon

RAF Shawbury Readies for Positive Change By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

Ensign_of_the_Royal_Air_Force.svg99 years since flying first started at RAF Shawbury this hugely important Royal Air Force base located in the heart of Shropshire is gearing up for significant change and new development. During March this year I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days at RAF Shawbury to look in detail at both rotary and air traffic management training and in the process witness and ever increasing degree of jointery in respect of military training. Responsible to Air Officer Commanding 22 Group Air Vice Marshal Andrew Turner to say anything other than that I have been hugely impressed not only by the standards of initial helicopter training that I witnessed at first hand and that of air traffic management training and particularly the high standard and the success ratios being achieved it would be remiss if I failed to mention the strong leadership provided to all sections of Shawbury that I visited and particularly from the Station CO, Group Captain Jason Appleton and his senior team. The strong sense of motivation to succeed that purveyed across all operational sections of this base really was very impressive.

Home of what was until earlier this month known as the Central Air Traffic Control School (CATCS) and is now the School of Air Operations Control (SAOC) together with the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) and that provides elementary single and multi-engine rotary wing flying training not just for the Royal Air Force but for the Royal Navy and Army as well using Squirrel and Griffin helicopters RAF Shawbury is an extremely busy and in my opinion, a very well run base. I confess that it is over thirty years since I had last visited RAF Shawbury and that while it is hugely pleasing to see new infrastructure work going on including changes that have led to the creation of the Defence College of Airspace Control (DCAC) the base is also the official home of the School of Air Battle Management (SABM). While from an operational capability perspective it is RAF Boulmer and that provides class leading Tactical Air Command & Control and Battlefield Management training and support for the execution of military tasks that underpin Force Elements @ Readiness the responsibility for its operation is located within RAF Shawbury.

School of Air Operations Control (formally the Central Air Traffic Control School)

Previously known as the Central Navigation and Control School, the Central Air Traffic Control School (CATCS) and what from the beginning of this month has become the School of Air Operations Control has been providing air traffic management control training at RAF Shawbury since 1950. The roots of this had begun at Shawbury when the Central Navigation School was joined by the School of Air Traffic Control and which until then had formally been located at RAF Watchfield. This was then ‘merged’ with the Central Navigation and Control School (CN&CS). From 1961 until 1989, controllers received all live training in the tower at RAF Shawbury with Vampire and later, Jet Provost aircraft being provided by Marshalls of Cambridge for the specific purpose of air traffic management training. The school was again re-named, this time as the Central Air Traffic Control School (CATCS) after navigation training was moved away to RAF Manby in 1963.

Military air traffic control training at RAF Shawbury has moved on a very long way since the 1960’s and today the base is responsible for the training of Air Traffic Controllers for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. It is has long been responsible for training of Flight Operations Assistants and of Flight Operations Officer training, the latter since the creation of this particular branch of operation in 1997.

The mission is to train and develop specialist military air traffic management expertise that can facilitate air operations and deliver trained capability for a complex, dynamic and joint battlespace arena be this in the UK or on deployment overseas.

My current understanding is that annually the School of Air Operations Control will train approximately 200 Air Traffic and Operations personnel of whom 60 will be Air Traffic controllers, 30 will be Area Radar controllers, 25 will be air traffic control instructors, 15 will be flight operations Officers and 90 will be Flight Operations Assistants. 24 members of the RAF Reserve are employed in this important area of expertise.

The former CATCS (now SAOC) has also delivered bespoke training courses, most recently for HM Coastguard. The planned changes that will emerge from the creation of the Defence College of Airspace Control (DCAC) will come into full effect in 2018/19 and during the build and development phase the DCAC will be commanded by RAF Shawbury Station CO, Group Captain Jason Appleton. This is a hugely important development in military air traffic control management and one that will see investment in more modern facilities create greater training efficiencies and include state-of-the-art technology investment in new air traffic management training facilities. It should also lower the overall cost. While the present system of SAOC/CATCS air traffic management training remains more than fit for purpose, particularly the very useful airfield tower control simulation system which I for one found to be very impressive despite its age, it is clear that in a fast changing technological and defence world the UK Military must remain one step ahead in terms of air traffic management control training.

As mentioned earlier the Defence College includes the RAF Boulmer operated School of Air Battlespace Management (SABM) and which, having not yet visited or previously discussed, I will not dwell specifically on here together. Together with the newly named School of Air Operations and Control (SAOC) the impact of bringing these capabilities closer together can only be but beneficial in the years ahead.

The SAOC delivers Phase 2 training for ab initio Officer and SNCO Air Traffic Controllers from both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. On completion of the Joint Air Traffic Controllers Course (JATCC), newly qualified controllers will usually be posted to one of the many UK and Overseas operational Air Traffic Control base units or maybe remain at SAOC to complete the Area Radar Training Course (ARTC) prior to posting. The SAOC also delivers Phase 2 Training to Flight Operations Officers on the Flight Operations Training Course (FOTC) and also to Flight Operations Assistants. On graduation, newly qualified Flight Ops Officers and Assistants will usually be posted to flight based squadrons or operational units.

While the name change and creation of the Defence College and SAOC will better reflect the totality of the output that RAF Shawbury will in future be required to deliver I rather doubt that it could possibly change the quality of output provided by the specialist instructional staff based at RAF Shawbury today or indeed better the strong leadership that is very much in evidence across all aspects of this base. That change will undoubtedly provide greater efficiencies, better cost of training operation and has the potential to increase the number of trainees going through the system although it will provide opportunities to widen the scope the changes can in my view only but enhance an already very high level of quality of training quality that is in evidence within the school. RAF Shawbury can certainly be very proud of what it achieves in terms of air traffic control management training.

Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS)

Formed in 1997 the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) is responsible for initial helicopter training for the Royal Air Force, the Army, Royal Navy and various Foreign and Commonwealth countries. The Helicopters are provided by Cobham Aviation Services and the company also provides flying hours, maintenance and technical support, support services and 40% of the training instructors, all of whom are as you would expect, ex-military.

For the purposes of the initial single rotary engine training a total of 25 Eurocopter Squirrel 350BB helicopters are available together with 11 Bell Griffin 412 helicopters for twin engine rotary training. The average number of daily sorties on the Squirrel is I believe approximately 39 per day and that on the Griffin, approximately 16 sorties. SARTU training is conducted at RAF Valley and there are Simulators and cockpit and task trainers available for Squirrel trainees and Virtual Reality, cockpit procedure and full-motion D-class simulation trainers available for Griffin trainees.  The location of Shropshire makes this an ideal base for initial helicopter training.

Helicopters are not exactly quiet and the base works hard with the local community and farmers to ensure minimal disturbance. Indeed, the relations with the local community appear excellent and the base has been regularly opened to visitors. There are clear demarcation areas in which helicopter training is not undertaken and full realisation of the need for public support.

Two types of aircraft are operated for training purposes. The Squirrel HT Mk 1 single engine helicopter is used for basic and advanced training and for preparing students who may go on to the complexities of twin engine aircraft and operational flying. The Griffin HT1 twin engine helicopter is used for advanced rotary based flying training for both pilots and air crew ahead of them joining their respective Operational Conversion Units and Flights which in the case of the Army could well be Apache or Wildcat, the Royal Air Force Super Puma or the Royal Navy Merlin, Wildcat and Sea King. The Griffin is also used for Search and Rescue Training Unit (SARTU) training.

Current annual throughput of Single Engine Rotary Wing Course (SERW) trainee personnel is approximately 112 students and those of Multi-Engine Rotary Wing Course (MERW) 32. Air crew training numbers are approximately 112 personnel. There are approximately 56 Qualified Helicopter Instructors (QHI’s) and 24 Qualified Helicopter Crewman instructors.

While it is hard to find any reason to criticise the existing helicopter training system of operation the current arrangement with Cobham expires in April 2018. The future heralds change and at that point the existing Defence Helicopter Flying School will become part of the Military Flying Training System (MFTS) which is already responsible through the Ascent joint venture for training of fast jet pilots at RAF Valley, the King Air 350 Avengers used by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm for observer training and the more recent award from the Ministry of Defence to cover remaining fixed wing training, again to Ascent, a joint venture between Babcock International and Lockheed Martin UK which will provide the ground based training equipment and infrastructure and separately to Affinity, a partnership between Elbit Systems/KBR joint venture Affinity Flying Services will by 2018/19 provide a small fleet of Grob G120TP (23 in total) aircraft, Beechcraft T-6C (10 aircraft) and a total of five Embraer Phenom 100 aircraft for initial aircraft training and replacement of existing Tucano aircraft at RAF Linton-on-Ouse and the fleet of Beechcraft King Air 200/350’s.

Details of the rotary-wing aspect of the planned MFTS training have yet to be announced but these are expected to replace existing Squirrel and Griffin aircraft operated by the existing tri-service Defence Helicopter Training School.

The existing system of military rotary based training undoubtedly works well and it is a fair question to ask that when a training system operates as well as this one certainly does why change it. The answer is that at some point – in this case 2018/2019 – the existing fleet of Squirrel and Griffin helicopters will need replacement. Cost of operation is another issue and the MOD is keen to involve the private sector in all forms of military aircraft and helicopter training. Clearly there are efficiency gains to be made and the greater use of synthetic (simulation based) training will mean a reduction in actual flying. There is nothing at all wrong with this and much has been learned since the first MFTS based contracts were placed.

For my part, just as in fast jet training, I hope that International Defence Training is allowed to play a larger part in the overall aspects of what the UK can deliver to its NATO and export partners. We are very good at what we do and in terms of training, as activities at RAF Valley, RAF Linton-on-Ouse and RAF Shawbury clearly demonstrate, we have a lot to offer to our international partners.

My visit to RAF Shawbury was an eye opener and the enthusiasm for the current operation and the future plan is much in evidence. Clearly change brings with it a degree of uncertainty but in this case I am quite certain that whatever changes to Defence Helicopter Flying School training are put through will enhance in terms of capability and achievement the quality and level of those that the training system will in future churn out.

CHW (London – 18th April 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785

Back to article list