One hundred years to the week since Number 72 Squadron was originally formed on the 2nd July 1917, the present day 72 (R) Squadron, based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire, continues the long tradition of excellence that has been a mark of this fine squadron throughout its long and very illustrious history.
Disbanded and reformed on several occasions over the past one hundred years, the present day 72 (Reserve) Squadron had been reformed in 2002 as one of the then two squadrons that would form No 1 Flying Training School of which No 72 (R) Squadron is the survivor, following merger of the two original squadrons.
The mission and objectives of RAF Linton-on-Ouse are straightforward enough – to train tomorrow’s fast jets pilots today. The well located base is currently responsible for all Basic Fast Jet Training (BFJT) for pilots of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and for pilot training under the International Defence Training (IDT) arrangements, this currently including pilots from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Including 72 (R) Squadron, Operations and Support Wings, Babcock International and the extremely interesting array of ‘lodger units’ located at RAF Linton-on-Ouse together with the handful of Thales employees responsible for operation of efficient Tucano T1 simulator, I estimate that close to 900 personnel are located on the base. Lodger units and other smaller specialist units aside, the base is home to approximately 195 serving Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel, around 34 civil servants and 345 contractors.
Perhaps best described as fast jet training in the way that this has traditionally been done in the Royal Air Force 72 (R) Squadron Commander, Wing Commander Robbie Lees is already preparing for the change in October 2019 when this crucial element of fast jet training is intended to move from RAF Linton-on-Ouse to RAF Valley in Anglesey, North Wales where it will then become part of the MOD’s fast growing Military Flying Training System. In the meantime he must do all that he can over the next two years to maintain existing fast jet pilot training using a fleet of ageing Tucano aircraft suffering from varying degrees of obsolescence.
While it would be wrong to ignore the difficulties of maintaining a fleet of extremely well maintained Tucano aircraft fleet that is well overdue replacement RAF Linton-on-Ouse I could be persuaded that the ‘whole force concept’ process that is being driven throughout the UK military today was invented at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. Never and I really mean that, have I witnessed a better example of Royal Air Force and contractor in the form of Babcock International, working better together than can be found here. This is part of what ‘whole force concept’ is supposed to be about and the manner in which in this case, military user and the engineering and support contractor work together hand in glove to ensure aircraft availability and that the Squadron is able to meet all of its various requirements and pressures is as impressive as it is also very commendable.
Delivery of Basic Fast Jet Training (BFJT) will, during the current year, see 49 trainees plus refreshers move through the system. Courses are approximately nine to ten months long with 100 hours actual flying and as one would expect, continual assessments. 50% of personnel trained are RAF, 25% Royal Navy and 25% International Defence Training. Award of Wings occurs on satisfactory completion of course before students move on to RAF Valley for advanced fast jet training on BAE Systems Hawk T2 jets of 1V (R) Squadron and the excellent Ascent operated Military Flying Training System operated from there.
Tucano T1 capability has provided the aircraft capability for the BFJT role since 1989. The aircraft is capable of 300 mph, has a range of 700nm, full aerobatic capability to +6g to -2.5g and inverted spin capability, although the latter is limited due to G suits not being used. The aircraft has TCAS and importantly, PFLARM (Traffic Awareness and collision avoidance) warning systems but lacks Nav, radar altimeter and other mission kit.
Opened in 1937, RAF Linton-on-Ouse was initially home to bomber squadrons such as No’s 51, 58, 102, 35 and 78 and later, Squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force, the current Station Commander of RAF Linton-on-Ouse is Group Captain Keith Taylor and the authority of training operation is vested in AOC 22 Group.
RAF Linton-on-Ouse is in my view a very well located strategic base not just due to the crucially important training work that it is requited to do, the professionalism and very high standards that are achieved. but also because of the location, some twelve miles from York, emphasise importance in respect of its location within the North East of England.
While the long term future of RAF Linton-on-Ouse remains unclear, the future of fast jet training has already been decided. As previously indicated, in little more than two years from now all fast jet training for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and members of the various international air forces such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that come to the UK for pilot training, will move to RAF Valley in Anglesey, North Wales as part of what is known as the Military Flying Training System.
RAF Valley which I had recently visited and subsequently written on a couple of months ago, is currently undergoing a large amount of new infrastructure related investment in readiness for the change that will occur in late 2019. It is not my place to express any concerns that I might have about change here and there can be no doubt now that seven years of operation of the final stage of fast jet training at RAF Valley and that is operated by the MFTS design and training delivery ‘Ascent’ joint venture together with 1V (R) Squadron with its state-of-the-art simulation based training facilities in the Moran Building and students flying BAE Systems Hawk T2 jets is working very well.
The forward MFTS plan is that the current fleet of approximately 40 Tucano Mk 1 Turboprop fast jet training aircraft of 72 (R) Squadron currently based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse will be replaced at RAF Valley by a significantly increased level of simulation based training combined with a fleet of 10 US built Beechcraft T-6C Texan Turboprop aircraft. The T-6C aircraft has similar performance to Tucano but clearly has a vastly upgraded level of kit and digital cockpit displays as opposed to the entirely analogue Tucano cockpit, Nav, Head up Display (HUD)
With the existing Tucano aircraft exceeding 28 years in respect of age and with these aircraft still having two more years to do before being stood down, it is hardly surprising that I should say that huge challenges remain for all those operating at RAF Linton-on-Ouse.
Tucano engineering support has, as mentioned earlier, been contracted out to Babcock International for many years and what I was able to witness on my recent visit to RAF Linton-on-Ouse in respect of how Royal Air Force 72 (R) Squadron members and engineering and support staff of the contractor, Babcock International work so closely together for the self-same ends was quite remarkable.
Indeed, I can genuinely say that in all the years I spent visiting Royal Air Force and Royal Navy bases, I have never seen a better example of what today we classify as ‘whole force concept’ working so well.
I refer above principally to the manner in which members of the Royal Air Force at Linton-on-Ouse and those of the engineering and support contractor, Babcock International interact in order to ensure that sufficient numbers of Tucano aircraft are made available to support Squadron training mission requirement. Maintaining older aircraft for which the act of obtaining spares and parts gets increasingly more difficult requiring sometimes that these are made in-house and in coping with increasing obsolescence is no easy task.
Tucano aircraft requirement can be as many as 50 flight sorties per day and will occasionally include night flying. In respect of current year annual tasking, the requirement is based around a requirement for in excess of 14 training capable aircraft being available on a 30 day rolling average. This equates to a requirement of between 6,000 to 8,000 flying hours. The actual requirement tends to be based on availability of 13 aircraft.
The three year (plus one option year) Tucano In-Service Support Contract (TISS) is built around Babcock International providing all forward and depth maintenance plus logistics support (MT, providing vehicles, fuelling and refuelling etc) along with flight-line and detachment support of a fleet of approximately 40 Tucano TMk1 turboprop training aircraft that are primarily operating out of RAF Linton-on-Ouse. Apart from providing the above mentioned contract requirements, services provided by Babcock International can also include recovery of aircraft from other operating bases. More normally the requirement includes bay support, incorporating general engineering and painting, safety equipment including the Martin Baker ejector seat and armoury and parachute maintenance, helmet fitting plus many other aspects of personal safety and equipment provision and importantly, the provision of all technical administration for the Tucano Support Authority. The design authority for the RAF Tucano fleet is Bombardier.
Babcock International inherited the TISS contract on its acquisition of VT Group in 2010 and the current four year contract now has less than two more years to run. Although extending Tucano beyond it’s planned out of service date in October 2019 is possible, this is unlikely given the age and increasing obsolescence of the airframe.
Even so, it is worthy of note that Babcock International has consistently exceeded the required 99.5% despatch rate requirement and through adopting a flexible approach has provided significant cost savings for the MOD and that have included extending maintenance periods by 50% and optimising holding of Tucano spares that has cut the cost to the MOD by approximately £450,000.
Clearly, while risks in relation to infrastructure, ageing aircraft, spares and increasing obsolescence and rising cost of available spares are all live factors that must be considered on a daily basis, the biggest concern that I would envisage during the remaining two years of the TISS is staff retention. It seems unlikely to me that even if they might be required at RAF Valley in the future that those employed on the base by contractors would wish to move to RAF Valley. Similar concerns may apply to maintaining sufficient numbers of Tucano ‘Qualified Flying Instructors’ (QFI’s) through to Tucano OSD (Out of Service Date) in October 2019.
There are currently 43 QFI’s at RAF Linton-on-Ouse and fair to say that the Royal Air Force and main contractors responsible for providing all necessary Tucano related support, Babcock International, are well aware of the above issues. However, whilst not without some concerns of my own, I am content that by continuing to work closely together as they clearly already do, both the Service and the Contractor will manage to work their way through the majority of issues and risks that they face over the next two years. It is important to stress that there can be no gaps in fast jet training availability during the transitioning period to MFTS and when this is stood up at RAF Valley in 2019.
RAF Linton-on-Ouse Future?
I regret that there has as yet been no announcement on the future of this exceptional and very well operated North Yorkshire Royal Air Force base and the stress this causes those who live and work on the base. I am bound to hope that RAF Linton-on-Ouse has a great future to look forward to and with plans that include Programme Marshall (Military Air Traffic Management) planned to be incorporated on the base and the ever increasing pressure of airspace availability on bases further south, my hope is that RAF Linton-on-Ouse really does have the future it so well deserves.
Lodger Units – European Defence Agency
Of the various lodger units located on the RAF Linton-on-Ouse base perhaps the most interesting to me from a strategic perspective was the European Defence Agency (EDA) unit that have been responsible for the design and subsequent training involved on the Helicopter Tactics Instructors Course for various European members of NATO. Based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse for several years past, this is a capability that I intend to write on separately in due course. Suffice to say here that the course which is, as alluded above, attended by a variety of EDA member air forces across the Continent of Europe and run by Alpha Aviation, is now able to boast well over 1,000 graduates from 14 nations having successfully gone through the course over a five year period. It is very impressive and yet another little known gem that the UK military along with its industry partner Alpha Aviation have both developed and successfully driven forward on what can only be described as a shoestring.
The genesis of the HTC course was the result of a French/British initiative to generate capability from a larger number of under-utilised European military helicopters. The problem had been perceived as being a training shortfall and that despite availability of around 1,700 airframes there was a lack of benchmarked training standards. The training work provided by Alpha Aviation and the funding of the European Defence Agency has gone a long way to resolving these issues. It is hugely important that this operation is maintained and that the UK continues to lead in this vital training capability.
Amongst other lodger units including 645 Vigilant Gliding Squadron and the base being home of the gliding Support Authority, Regional Headquarters of the Air Cadets, MOD Police RAF Linton-on-Ouse hosts a University Air Squadron as well. Flying Grob Tutor aircraft, the importance of the University Air Squadrons as a route to joining the Royal Air Force should never be underestimated. Current estimates suggest that 35% of members of a University Air Squadron join the Royal Air Force when they have graduated.
One of the absolute personal delights during my recent visit to RAF Linton-on-Ouse was to be able to visit the ‘Memorial Room’ and to observe in detail the extensive collection of historic items of RAF Squadrons and those of the Royal Canadian Air Force plus other units that have been based at RAF Linton on Ouse since the station was built in 1937. The history and the people stories that surround this base are extensive.
The unique collection to be found in the Memorial Room provides a fascinating insight into life at the Station during the Second World War and records those who served there just as it also commemorates those who died or failed to return. Open to the public on approximately one afternoon each month during the summer and autumn months of the year, the Memorial Room contains literally hundreds of exhibits, photographs and first-hand accounts from the period and is still regularly visited by the families of veterans who were based at Linton-on-Ouse during World War 2. It is also of great interest to those who lived in the area at the time as well as to younger people who may seek to find out a little about what was happening on the many RAF bases in Yorkshire during the very critical years between 1939 and 1945.
My thanks to all those that made my visit to RAF Linton-on-Ouse last month so successful and particularly to Station Commander, Group Captain Keith Taylor who I have had the pleasure of knowing for several year, 72 (R) Squadron Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Robbie Lees, Donald Petty from Babcock International, Squadron Leader David Hicks and also particular thanks to Flt Lt Matt Kallmeier.
CHW (London – 4th July 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785