Opened in February 1941, over the many years that RAF Valley has existed its importance in the overall mission that the Royal Air Force plays in protection of our people, our national security and our vital national interests, has never diminished. Suffice to say here that with the many important aspects of training and operation that RAF Valley is responsible for today and in how it is expanding and developing for the longer term training role, that the importance of the base has never been greater.
To most, RAF Valley is known as the home of Royal Air Force fast jet training, SAR military mission helicopter training and, until a year ago when this vital role was moved to private sector operation, for the major role that it played in UK Search and Rescue (SARS) using the venerable Sea King helicopter.
The proud history of RAF Valley and the decades of achievement that go before are manifold and for this scribe, I suspect that of all RAF stations that I visit, this is the one that I know best. A recent visit to further update myself on the vast amount of change taking place at RAF Valley that includes significant infrastructure investment including runway refurbishment, operational and community buildings as the base readies for additional MFTS (Military Flying Training Systems) requirements, proved to be extremely rewarding.
Currently, as part of AOC 22 Group responsibility, RAF Valley is responsible for the Mountain Rescue Service, 202 (R) Squadron search and rescue (SARS) mission training, UK MFTS Fast Jet Phase 4 Training (Ascent/1V(R) Squadron), International Defence Training and the not insubstantial part that it plays in Defence Export Sales and the Prosperity Agenda.
RAF Valley continues to be home to a number of other lodger units including the highly respected Mountain Rescue Service – this being part of AOC 38 Group, 85(EL) Wing.
As with many other aspects of defence, RAF Valley is responding to a significant change in requirement and gearing itself up for further expansion of its very important role in training under the various final stages of Military Flying Training Systems (MFTS) development that will take place over the next few years.
In addition UK MFTS – Fast Jet Phase 4 Training [1V) Squadron and which has been operating very successfully at RAF Valley since 2010 training fast jet pilots for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the active role played in International Defence Training (IDT) and Defence Engagement, the Anglesey base will soon be home to UK-MFTS Basic Fast Jet Training using a mix of Texan T6 trainer aircraft and that will include state of the art simulation facilities being built, RAF Valley will also be responsible for the revised MFTS arrangements covering Rotary Wing Mountains and Maritime Training [202 (R) Squadron].
In terms of RAF Valley personnel, lodger units account for 51 personnel, the number of contractors on base is 1,124, numbers of civil servants are down to 37 and the rest, are uniformed members attached to Flying Training. Not surprisingly, RAF Valley staff play an important role in the wider Anglesey community.
202 (R) Squadron
Although part of the RAF Shawbury based Defence Helicopter Flying School, the RAF Valley based 202 (R) Squadron mission is to provide all Royal Air Force and Royal Navy helicopter aircrew with all basic mountain, maritime and littoral flying training skills for day/night operation in order to deliver advanced Search and Rescue (SAR) training to military aircrew who may be destined for specific deployed roles and also for all aircrew destined for 84 Squadron at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
The current rotary capability used includes one AgustaWestland AW139 and two Bell 412 Griffin helicopters. The operation includes approximately 17 military and 25 civilian QHI (Qualified Helicopter Instructors) together with 30 engineering and survival equipment support staff.
Through a combination of simulation based and actual rotary flying, by the time students depart from their 202(R) Sqn training they will have a sufficiently strong grounding in the basic skills and the teamwork ethos required to carry out, for instance, mountain winching techniques and those over water and in the littoral environment.
Supported by Cobham Aviation Services who also provide the aircraft, engineering and survival equipment personnel together with a significant number of aircrew instructors, 202(R) Sqn trains crews from UK military, civilian helicopter agencies and foreign governments.
The purpose of the Operations Wing is to ensure that flying activity from RAF Valley and nearby RAF Mona is conducted safely and effectively. The mission operation includes air safety management, flight safety, standardisation, risk management, coordination of airfield operations, communications and information systems and maintenance of a robust communications infrastructure together with Air Traffic Control – control and surveillance and coordination of airborne assets.
Key outputs form the support wing include HR and welfare services, discipline procedures, training, military, logistics and engineering support, catering corporate governance, safety and security, infrastructure and media and communications.
With the Hawk T1 operated 208 Squadron at RAF Valley disbanded last year and its aircraft dispersed to other bases, RAF Valley based 1V(R) Squadron is now solely responsible for Advanced Jet Training for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy using a combinations of synthetic based training applications and BAE Systems Hawk TMk2 trainer jet and which was designed to be a lead in for both Typhoon and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
The first part of the Military Flying Training Systems (MFTS) put into operation, training of fast jet pilots at RAF Valley since 2010 been achieved through an excellent partnership between 1V(R) Squadron and Ascent Flight Training which acts as the Training Service Provider. Ascent is itself a joint venture between Babcock International and Lockheed Martin. Using state-of-the-art synthetic based training facilities housed within the purpose built Moran Building, facilities along with actual flying training provided by members of 1V(R) Squadron Qualified Flying Instructors and flying Hawk TMk2 aircraft, this remains the best fast jet training facility and operation that this scribe has ever seen.
IV(R) Squadron Qualified Flying Instructors (QFI’s) train and prepare Royal Air Force and Royal Navy fast jet pilots for the huge variety of demands and complexities of front line operation and deployment. In addition, the same high standard of training is also provided for pilots in respect of International Defence Training for some of our NATO partner allies and defence export customers.
Within the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) construct, IV(R) Squadron military personnel work in partnership with civilians from Ascent, BAE Systems and Babcock Defence Services. The Ascent Partnership has undoubtedly brought about a complete transformation of UK fast jet pilot training with students benefiting from advanced synthetic training together with representative operational aircraft capabilities such as radar and aircraft self-protection systems.
The training syllabus is monitored and modified whenever required to ensure that continuous improvement and operational relevance is maintained. This is a vital process, as the character of conflict in the world changes and advances in technology render static tactics redundant. Flying training is broken into two principal constituent parts: ‘A’ Flight and ‘B’ Flight.
‘A’ Flight teaches the trainees basic aircraft handling, instrument flying, navigation, formation flying, air to surface weapons procedures and basic fighter manoeuvres on a one to one basis. ‘B’ Flight builds on these skills and teaches more advanced tactics, including air combat maneuvering (2 vs 1), simulated attack profiles (scenario based tactical sorties to simulate operational air to surface missions), operational training manoeuvres (to prevent an aircraft being shot down by enemy surface to air missiles), and basic and advanced air to air radar employment techniques. The Squadron also has ‘C’ Flight, which is responsible for training new instructors and standardisation. By the time they qualify at Valley, this system has ensured that 4 Squadron has delivered pilots fully ready for conversion to the Typhoon and soon to include the Lightning II.
Mountain Rescue Service
The Mountain Rescue Team was originally formed at Valley in August 1943 and during its first year of existence received over 400 call-outs. It was one of 6 similar teams throughout the UK whose proper purpose was the rescue of aircrew who have crashed or abandoned their aircraft in mountainous area. However, it has and continues to be frequently called out to assist climbers of all types who get into difficulties in Snowdonia or on sea cliffs and therefore worked closely with Valley’s Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters.
Importantly, the Mountain Rescue Service will often be the first unit to arrive in the aftermath of an aircraft accident and its experience in this area and in securing accident sites is well known in military circles.
The background that led to the UKMFTS started as a NAO (National Audit Office) Report in 2000 that had seriously questioned the ‘value for money’ concept of how existing military flying training was then done by the various individual force elements – the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army.
The MOD then conducted a strategic study that looked at process and conduct of flying training in detail and it concluded that core flying training was not only taking too long but also that training costs were being increased due to high student failure rates, that there were too many delays in students moving through the various training elements required and worse, that monitoring of training performance was very limited.
It was clear that change was needed and the decision was made that a whole force approach would be more cost effective and efficient. From this emerged a long list of specific requirements but from the start of the process, it was recognised that it would take up to fifteen years to fully deliver what would ultimately be called the UK Military Flying Training System (MFTS).
Once fully established by 2019, the Ascent UKMFTS will be the most comprehensive PFI flight training system evolved. Significant new infrastructure has or will be built at the various RAF air bases used. New investment apart and the much higher use of synthetic based training envisaged will allow pilots not just to perfect flying techniques but to be given much better mission training.
The plan envisaged that the MFTS process would eventually comprise all elementary, fixed wing and advanced fast jet flying training for Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots, rear-crew training, including ground school, introductory flying, elementary navigation and tactically orientated training for Royal Navy Observers, training for non-pilot aircrew, Electronic Warfare (EW) and Weapons Systems Operation (WSO); Fixed-wing elementary training, multi-engine training and basic jet training and finally, basic and advanced rotary helicopter training.
UK Military Flying Training System (MFTS) is a Public-Private Partnership that, from the initial contract award to the Ascent Consortium in 2008 required Ascent to be responsible for the ultimate delivery of all core military flying training for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army.
Fast jet training which would be based on an eleven month course at RAF Valley was the first element of MFTS to go live in 2012. Using the very latest simulator based technology combined with live flying training, the first students graduated from the very impressive and highly invested Moran Building (named after the late Air Marshal Sir Christopher Moran) in mid-June 2013. It should be noted here that in 2003 the MOD had agreed a conventional procurement of 28 x BAE Systems TMk2 Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) aircraft, all of which had been delivered by 2009 with all to be based at RAF Valley.
Ascent was contracted to provide the full training solution inclusive of 2 x Flight Mission Simulators, 6 x Flight Training Devices (FTD), 10 x Desk Top Trainers (DTT) DTT and laptops with Hands on Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) software control designed on that used in the Hawk T2. The Flight training Device, a Lockheed Martin part-task trainer, together with 2 x Hawk TMk2 mission computers in order to practise full checks and procedures and to rehearse missions together with two Flight Mission Simulators that provide a dome based visual display with fully immersive projection and ‘g’ cueing for realistic training and other synthetically generated aircraft are all part of this fantastic all-inclusive training system.
Initial teething problems included contractor issues, periods of low aircraft availability and, difficulties in retaining sufficient numbers of Qualified Flying Instructors (QFI’s). However, by 2014 the partnership between Ascent and 1V(R) Squadron was working very well and despite retention issues remaining, my recent visit confirmed that this first stage of the MFTS process is working very well. For that, 1V(R) Squadron and Ascent along with BAE Systems deserve significant praise.
The retention issue remains and with the need of a programme such as MFTS to maintain extremely high training standards, the exodus of highly-trained flying instructors to several Gulf States that have been better able to offer what are considered more attractive remuneration packages to Qualified Flying or Weapon instructors is a problem observed by many sections of the UK military.
A roughly 50/50 basis of synthetic to live flying is now already well established within fast jet training and also, with Typhoon squadron training as well. Of course, all trainee pilots will continue to do an extensive amount of live flying. At RAF Valley students are assessed by uniformed 1V(R) Squadron Qualified Flying Instructors (QFI’s) and of course, live flying with a QFI will hone flying techniques in a ‘G’ environment that cannot be done in a simulator. But, as already said, it is the ability that synthetic based training to provide conceptual flying training along with mission training and the better ability for pilots assessment that should not be lost. It is the latter basis of reasoning has defined that the number of trainer aircraft to be used across all aspects of UK MFTS could be reduced. That said, if the UK was to better embrace International Defence Training as, in my view it needs to, and aim to increase the number of domestic and foreign students going through the Valley fast jet training process, more investment would be needed.
Of note is that a great many foreign air forces including the French, German, Belgian and Danish air forces have visited RAF Valley to look at the joint operation between Ascent and 1V (R) Squadron and have been very impressed. Britain has a great opportunity here and there can be little doubt that we lead in fast jet training capability.
MFTS ‘Second Stage’
Due to be replaced in 2019 by the planned second stage fixed-wing MFTS programme, part of which will be based at RAF Valley, and that will require procurement of 23 Grob G120TP, 10 Beechcraft T-6C and five Phenom 100s to be used for future elementary, basic and multi-engine pilot flight training, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army flying training continues to be achieved using a fleet of Grob G115E Tutor aircraft, Short Tucano T1s at both RAF Linton-on Ouse and RAF Cranwell together with Beechcraft King Air 200/350 aircraft. RAF Wittering remains home to No 3 Flying Training School and No 6 Flying Training School.
Currently, pilots that have successfully complete the Elementary Flying Training (EFT) process move on to different aircraft types and locations. For instance, those moving to become fast jet pilots go to RAF Linton-on-Ouse to extend their flying training on Embraer Tucano aircraft. Most will then graduate to RAF Valley for advanced fast-jet pilot training with 1V(R) Squadron where, as already mentioned, they will be immersed in the superb synthetics based training system and in respect of actual flying use the BAE Systems TMk2 Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT).
MFTS Stage 3
As part of the still current PFI Contract that was awarded to Cobham in 1997, Rotary Wing (RW) pilot training for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy together with initial training for the Army, is currently undertaken at the Defence Helicopter Flying School based at RAF Shawbury. Here students fly the Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel before moving on to Multi-Engine Advanced Rotary Wing training using the Bell 412 Griffin HT1 helicopter.
The future rotary element of UK MFTS was confirmed last year and awarded to a combination of Ascent and Airbus Helicopter. The plan is that from 2019, in newly built facilities that are now under construction at RAF Shawbury, rotary wing training elements will in future be based on flying Airbus H135 and H145 helicopters replacing the current fleet of Eurocopter Squirrel and Bell 412EP Griffin aircraft.
I will write further ion this separately.
The continuous need for acceleration, performance enhancement and cost/time reductions embraced by all involved in MFTS has been impressive to observe and while I believe that MFTS is a considerable advancement and enhancement of how aspects of military flying training was previously done it will, particularly if the prosperity agenda is to be properly observed and its true importance recognised in respect that to achieve defence export sales requires the offer of more training, I fear that more will need to be done in respect of investment.
Clearly, we need to get more trainees through the system and it may be that an additional Hawk TMk2 Squadron at Valley could be required to meet the need to increased fast jet pilot training ANF to fully embrace International Defence Training (IDT) requirements.
It is very necessary that we must accept that within the innovation and prosperity agenda more IDT will be required.
Finally, to repeat my greatest concern here, we need to do a lot more in respect of training trainers more quickly and importantly, putting more effort in to support them and retain them.
While the true level of agility and flexibility of UK MFTS is yet to be fully tested, having been closely involved watching the development and operation of Ascent Flying Training at RAF Valley since 2010 and observing alongside 1V (R) Squadron, I conclude that I remain very impressed with what has been achieved particularly so in that aircraft availability has improved so markedly. Of course, the true test of flexibility and adaptability will be to observe how a PFI (Private Finance Initiative) based system reacts to increasing demands placed on it.
(Commentary will return on Thursday 6th April)
CHW (London 4th April 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785