Former RAF chief instructor reveals how the RAF training system was destroyed by privatization (and how pennies could have saved a $100m F-35B)

Hush-Kit caught up with former RAF Tornado pilot and lead instructor Tim Davies to find out more about the dire situation the Royal Air Force finds itself in and how best to address it. Davies claims he risked and lost his old civilian job because he spoke out. Now he shares his views on what went so wrong with British military training.

What’s wrong with the training system?

Tim Davies

Circa 2006 it was thought that the existing British military flight training system run by the RAF might not be able to provide the required quantity and quality of aircrew to meet the requirements for entry into conversion units operational and on the front line. This was due to obsolete aircraft and different and multiple contractual arrangements for the provision of equipment and support. This led the UK Treasury to decide that, to make the costs of UK military flight training more predictable, it would privatize it and therefore be able to pay the same amount each year over a 25-year period. The numbers changed a lot at first, but it cost around £6.25bn or £250m a year. The bid was won by Lockheed Martin and Babcock who set up a company called Ascent Flight Training to run what was now called the UK Military Flying Training System or UKMFTS.

This partnership was known as PFI (Private Finance Initiative) which was popular in the UK at the time. The RAF was known the world over for its superb and enviable flying training system and overnight it had been privatized and had to be run by civilians.

The flight training system before the UKMFTS wasn’t very pretty, but pilots and students made it work, it belonged to the British Army and there was an element of pride about it. I was an instructor before and after the introduction of the UKMFTS, but I only look back at the old army-run system with a sense of pride and fond memories. UKMFTS was, to me, soulless with its new buildings and planes; that should be a good thing i know but the front squads were just more authentic – hard to describe but they had memorabilia on the walls that gave them a sense of history and past accomplishments and these have been lost under UKMFTS.

The old flight system was also incredibly flexible as it was purely military – UKMFTS is lean, as you would expect, there is no flexibility, few military pilots aspire to instruct it and that is became a 9 to 5 job. Also, critically, there were initial contract issues where the supplier, Ascent Flight Training, expected the RAF to provide them with instructors who were already trained to teach, but the Ministry of Defense expected Ascent to train the instructors – this was never resolved and done on the spot. agreements in all separate flight schools. This was a huge problem for me as OC standards on the Hawk T2 at RAF Valley and I managed to close the school for 6 months in 2014 just so I could train my instructors as Ascent prioritized training students rather than training instructors. This was understandable as they had a financial incentive to produce students and they had no money to train instructors – you can see the problem here, but without instructors you don’t get students!

The flight training system will always be in trouble, in my view, precisely because it has been privatized. Instructors are still military on jet planes, but all other planes can also be civilian – I don’t see that as a big deal, but the system run by an external company has always been a problem. Over the years, the military personnel on the bases actually got along very well with the Ascent employees they served with – they’re all good people, but the problems that existed centrally and at the top with Ascent HQ and issues with the MOD too, would always filter and cause friction.

Also, the planes that were purchased all had some kind of issue – I was the requirements manager who brought them all in, but they were purchased before I arrived. Airbus helicopters had issues where the rear crew loadmaster struggled to operate safely, the Texan T6 was not designed to be parked on an RAF Valley beach and was not permitted to fly over water because the wrong ejection seat harness had been fitted (MOD problem not Beechcraft – nice company), Hawk T2 (which is the only non-UKMFTS active and owned by MOD) has the same problem than the Aussie Hawks with the compressor blade cracking which I think will happen to a T45 Goshawk near you, soon) – he also has a huge and laborious minor modification program to go through. Grob 120TP appears to be working fine, but his simulator was actually a procedural trainer and so much of the training that needed to be done couldn’t be done. In 2018, two of five Embraer Phenom aircraft for multi-engine training collided during a practice session for the RAF’s 100th anniversary flyby over London – not sure if they had all five flew again.

Additionally, frontline changes in the number of squadrons meant student entry numbers had to be changed and the system couldn’t cope with the flexibility required – it’s a lean system for you. Other than that, UKMFTS is awesome!

Why are there so few F-35 pilots?

The planes were delivered before the trained pilots, it makes sense even if the pilots were trained in the United States before arrival. Many pilots simply don’t fly much and therefore leave for other jobs – the administrative burden for an RAF or RN F-35 pilot is high and they have mandatory courses to complete (Behavioral Course inappropriate, DIE, etc., which annoys them endlessly) and they spend a lot of time away from their families. Plus the jets are based at RAF Marham in Norfolk – it’s remote as all RAF and RN jet bases are – the pilots eventually get tired of it. There’s a blockage in the Fast Jet Flying Training pipeline right now on Hawk T2, as mentioned earlier, which really isn’t helping either.

How should this be remedied?

Personally, I don’t think that can be the case when you have both flight training AND frontline issues because they feed into each other – the training system delivers new pilots to the frontline and the front line provides instructors for flight training. At the moment they don’t provide anything to anyone and that’s the problem.

The current time frame for a fast jet student to reach the front line is 8 years – why would you want to join this now?

How is this solved, listen to me and my team in 2014 I would say.

Did the “capability vacation” after the Harrier hurt the FAA’s ability to use fast jets today?

RN pilots are great people and I have trained many of them which I enjoyed as I was originally in the Royal Navy myself. The RN was sensible and when it lost the Sea Harrier FA2 it put pilots on the RAF GR7s and GR9s. He also prepared for the introduction of the F-35 by sending pilots on USN F/A-18s – the RN was very good at that, so for them there was no capability leave.

What do you think of the F-35B engine crash?

We are only learning again the lessons of the past. When I taught on the Hawk T1 which was introduced in 1974 the engine blanks were tied together with a bit of old rope so you couldn’t leave one out – if one came out the other came out with. The F35 engine blanks are lower in the engine and harder to see, but that’s why they had to incorporate something to prevent this and a simple piece of rope costing pennies could have saved a $100 million loss. The young driver got away with it at least, legend!

What should I have asked you?

What lessons can I still bring to aviation?

Thanks for asking, lol.

I run a virtual flight school based on the RAF flight training curriculum I taught for a decade and use the Digital Combat Sim game to do this, but it’s more than a flight school piloting as my students will tell you. Hard work for a few hours a week, while I teach you complicated flight profiles, changes the way people operate and lives improve, as do relationships. I see it as therapy, but in a very manageable way. I run it on a subscription model and have just introduced voluntary exercise and nutrition work and guidance. I have all kinds of airline pilots, military students, doctors, retired police officers, builders – you name it, they’re there and they’re all interested in aviation – I do just to make sure it was the school I wanted to go to.

Tim Davies

For 20 years I flew in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force on the Tornado GR4, spending the last decade as a lead instructor teaching advanced pilot training and tactical weapons on the Hawk T1 and T2.

My company, Performance of fast jets is an aviation-based consulting firm also specializing in risk and gamification.

I run a virtual flight school called Shadowlands Online Flying Training where I guide people through 9 months of instruction using Digital Combat Sim and run a YouTube channel and podcast also called Fast Jet Performance.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the site

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