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Simulation Training Based Excellence from Thales at RAF Brize Norton By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

RAFA recent invitation to visit Thales activities in training and avionics support at RAF Brize Norton at the purpose built Thales Academy built for training pilots, engineers, maintainers and cabin staff on the RAF fleet of Airbus A330 Multi-Role-Tanker Transport Voyager aircraft together with the separate visit to the nearby A400M Training Services Centre was an eye opener in respect of how the quality and operation of synthetic based simulation training has advanced over a very short period of time.

A pioneer in simulation technology, Thales has been developing and growing synthetic based training technology applications for a large number of armed forces around the world including the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force for close on fifty years.

In recent years Thales developed a complete training solution under the title of “Directed Fidelity” for training services that the company provides in the United Kingdom, France and various other military based locations around the world. In addition to training services, Thales also supports synthetic based and other training for air, ground, and naval forces of various NATO member states including the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, and Belgium, Germany and Norway together with some non-NATO countries such as Australia.

Whilst it has taken time for some sections of the military to understand and embrace the extent to which synthetic based classroom and simulator training can provide a wider exposure to mission capability requirements and what may be described as more constructive basis of training implementation that, in terms of pilot and mission systems, is interwoven with actual flying whilst at the same time saving considerable costs. It is only in the past ten to fifteen years that a better understanding has emerged in respect of also using synthetic based training for engineering, maintenance, crew, loadmaster and many other tasks that are vital in terms of overall mission support but the success of its use is there for all to see at both the Thales Academy and A400M Training Centre.

For RAF Voyager Airbus A330 MRTT (multi-role tanker transport) Air Tanker Services carries the overall responsibility for all training carried out. Babcock International is responsible for providing all MT/GSE (maintenance training/ground support training) and also for providing all ‘operational’ software training. TTSL is the Theoretical Training Service Integrator responsible for bringing everything together for pilots, cabin crew, operations staff, engineers and other activities.

Thales and indeed, Air Tanker are justifiably proud of the ability to provide some of the most advanced synthetic based training applications in the most realistic military environments. The company offers a comprehensive range of solutions that include Computer Based Training (CBT) for crew and maintenance training including use of basic training devices through to Full Mission based training solutions and simulators for when, for instance, an aircraft is deployed operationally in the air or is on the ground and requires support and maintenance. All the various training applications and solutions are fully compatible with third party networked synthetic training environments required for instance by the MOD.

RAF Brize Norton acts as the home base for an extremely large number of squadrons including No 10 and 101 Voyager squadrons together with No 70 (LXX) squadron which is tasked with Airbus A400M Atlas operation.  Using RAF Voyager (Airbus Military A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft) for the air-to-air tanker refuelling, transport and VIP role AirTanker Services (this is a partnership between Airbus, Babcock International, Cobham, Rolls-Royce and Thales) Thales had been charged with providing state-of-the-art military avionics, mission systems including defensive aid suites for the nine aircraft acquired. In addition, as a subcontractor to Air Tanker, Thales has also provided ground mission training systems, including a full-flight simulator together with other training devices and services for aircrew and other trades.

During the long 27 year duration of the Voyager contract period Thales will provide Air Tanker with an extensive range of services during the through life support phase including spares, obsolescence management and repairs together with management and delivery of integrated training services. The latter includes both air and ground crews involved in all transport activities that Voyager might be used and for pilots and crew, A330 aircraft conversion from a range of other aircraft including private sector airlines together with twin engine operations (ETOPS) and the essential air-to-air refuelling training.

My visit to Thales facilities at RAF Brize Norton last month concentrated on the company’s work as the TTSL Training Service Integrator (Theoretical Training) for Voyager and the various pilot, engineer, maintainer and other aspects of synthetic based training conducted in the modern purpose built Voyager academy. The Voyager Academy can best be described as a state-of-the-art building with superb facilities both from a technical, physical and capability viewpoint. However, as is true in most aspects of military training, it is the work of the qualified trainers combined with the very high number of individual courses undertaken that set the Thales Academy apart from most other synthetic based military training establishment that I have seen in the UK so far.

The Voyager Academy conducts pilot, cabin crew, engineering and maintenance staff training of both military and civilian staff together with other operational staff training tasking requirements for Voyager on behalf of AirTanker Services. The Academy has the ability to provide 156 different courses. Broken down these comprise 74 for Pilots, Cabin Crew 10, Engineers 49, Operations 15 and other are put at 8. Since the Academy opened in November 2012 the number of hours delivered by the full mission simulator was at the time of my visit given as 6,783.


Since the Voyager Academy opened my understanding is that 112 pilots have been trained (80 with Type Rating + 32 CCQ) together with 75 military students who have been put through the pilot Air-to-Air Refuelling course, 34 have gone through the Mission System Operators Air-to-Air Refuelling course and no fewer than 381 Cabin Crew have also been trained of which 177 are military and 81 civil. The numbers are constantly changing of course so the above is only meant as a guide. So far, approximately 100 RAF Engineers have been trained to required ‘License’ standard and 403 engineers and other trades trained in the Academy so far as a whole at the time of my visit.


Annual usage of delivered training exceeds the annual threshold. The number of classroom hours provided totals 38,744 and the number of hours delivered on the full mission simulator 6,783.


Separately, on the day of my visit to RAF Brize Norton, I was able to spend some time in the purpose built A400M Training Services Centre and which is equally state-of-the art in terms of what this fantastic capability provides. An asset and service based provision, not only does the A400M Training Centre contain two full mission simulators but it also has a complete A400M aircraft rear sections for loadmaster and other engineering and maintainer training. There are nine service levels and the Cockpit Maintenance Operations Simulator (CMOS) is based on ‘Simfinity’ virtual maintenance trainer (VMT) technology which features virtual displays of the A400M aircraft, cockpit and maintenance accessible areas designed to provide familiarisation, troubleshooting and procedural training for maintainers.

The Airbus A400M is a European partnership aircraft built under and OCCAR DPP Contract. The Royal Air Force will eventually take 22 A400M aircraft and training was awarded by the MOD under a Training Services Support Contract to Airbus (51%) and Thales (49%) for 18 years. Part of a £226 million investment announced by the MOD in 2013, the A400M Training Services Centre at RAF Brize Norton contains two full-flight mission simulators in order to train RAF pilots together with a large number of specialist workstations for training of loadmasters, engineers and maintainers together with various other suites of computer-based training equipment. The very impressive replica Loadmaster (LM) provides 3-D views into the Cargo Hold area, very realistic LM training with full functionality of Cargo Hold capability and also for all dispatch and emergency procedures to be covered.

The A400M Training Services Centre has been designed as a facility for both Royal Air Force and civilian staff and is very well laid out from a professional and human use perspective. A superb building and facility that has been specifically designed to allow all personnel operating, supporting or maintaining the aircraft to train in a replica environment and in the process, to provide students with the best and safest learning experience available I have been very impressed by the design, capability provided, qualified trainers most of whom are ex-military and the hard work, effort and enthusiasm put in by all Thales staff at this state-of-the-art training facility.

Thales has a long and very well established history of simulation based training and continues to operate RAF Panavia Tornado GR4 synthetic based training activities at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Marham. The company is also responsible for synthetic training of Tucano pilots at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, for training at the Army Aviation Centre at Middle Wallop and is also charged with building and ultimate operation of the planned High-G training centre that will be built shortly at RAF Cranwell.

CHW (London 27th September 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785

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