Billed as ‘The World’s Premier Military Flight Training Conference’, the 18th annual Defence IQ Military Flight Training Conference convened in London in March. Dim Jones was there.

A noticeable change over the last few years has been a progressive shift from regarding outsourcing of elements of flying training as “a quaint idea, but not really for ‘grown-up’ air forces” to a more-or-less worldwide fact of life. There were no less than eight presentations outlining industry’s various capabilities, which focused on the provision of training services rather than of hardware, either synthetic or platform; happily for the companies concerned, many of the flying training systems on which we were briefed are in a greater or lesser degree of disarray, budgetary or organisational or both, thus presenting them with no shortage of opportunity.

Indeed, with more than a touch of self-fulfilling prophecy, while decision-makers have over the years been busy evaluating the merits of outsourcing, events and external constraints have been conspiring to make it inevitable. The air forces’ greatest fear in outsourcing is surrender of control of their training systems, and industry was at pains to explain how the creation of partnerships vice customer/contractor relationships could offset this and, to a great extent, during the panel discussions, the two groups were in violent agreement.

Presentations on the various national formats of flying training revealed a high degree of uniformity, the principal differences being whether or not it was combined with higher education and/or an academy course, and the choice of aircraft genres – turboprop or jet – especially for Phase 4 or Fighter Lead-In Training (FLIT).

An overarching issue was the ongoing worldwide shortage of qualified military aircrew, particularly instructors. This was variously attributed to difficulty in recruitment, undercapacity of training systems and poor performance in converting recruits to operational aircrew (absorption), and poor retention. Recruitment seemed variable, with the UK reporting few problems in attracting suitable candidates, although a shortfall of 2,000 pilots in the US suggests that this is by no means a universal state of affairs. Even nations with very small requirements could not guarantee fulfilling them and, of course, any fluctuation in absorption or retention has disproportionate effects on them. Furthermore, after a long period of gradual decay in the size of air forces (and I include the naval and land equivalents), some nations – including the US and the UK – are now in a period of modest expansion, which exacerbates some of the challenges.

With regard to retention, figures quoted by one speaker suggested that, by 2036, airlines worldwide will purchase 41,000 new aircraft, for which they will require 675,000 pilots; little wonder, then, that air forces contemplate the deleterious effects this might have with dismay. It is facile to identify money as both the root cause of the problems and the salvation; there are other equally fundamental factors in play, such as job satisfaction, career path, stability and family considerations. Nor is the application of local financial retention incentives without its own perils, not least the potential for divisiveness.

Industry can provide some solutions, such as attracting former qualified military aviators to opt for roles including instruction and the provision of support services such as aggressor air, rather than being lost to military aviation completely. However, as yet, the extent to which industry is ‘growing its own’ is extremely limited; the vast majority of aircrew thus employed are ex-military and, therefore, the air forces and the companies are merely fishing in different reaches of the same gene pool. Only nations as large as the US have the resources to combine commercial and military activities through organisations such as the Reserves and the National Guard, although Switzerland has instituted a novel system, whereby applicants can apply for either military or civilian training, and decide their career path as they progress. Even those who opt for the airlines can spend a period each year flying with the air force.

There was no doubting the quality of the MFTC speaker line-up: the ‘star tally’ attached to serving and retired presenters totalled 33, which included six commanders of their national flying training organisations.

There were 47 presenters all told across the full three-day, 27-hour schedule, comprising four sessions daily, interspersed with ample networking opportunities. The venue was filled to capacity by the 200+ delegates. These were fairly even split between military and industry, both groups with a pronounced North American presence, and represented 85 organisations from more than 35 nations worldwide.

The formal conference proceedings were ably marshalled by retired Maj Gen Thomas Deale USAF, formerly Vice-Director for Joint Force Development in the US Joint Staff, and the programme ran on rails, although coaxing delegates from the networking breaks back into the auditorium, by means short of tear gas or the detonation of a minor thermonuclear device, continues to present an apparently insurmountable challenge. Defence IQ organisation and catering was excellent.

The quality of the presentations was somewhat variable in both content and delivery, not least because English was clearly not the first language of some; however, the valuable contributions of some of the smaller air forces served to put the perceived woes of the larger ones into a clearer perspective.

The level of industry participation was less than surprising, given that they, as sponsors – 18 of them – help to underpin the event financially; it was also symptomatic of the burgeoning place of industry involvement in flying training worldwide.

I have touched on what was only a part – albeit an important part – of a wide agenda; in sum, MFTC 2019 was a convivial and professionally useful event which certainly, in my experience, continues to occupy pole position in its field on this side of the Atlantic. The organisation was high-quality, and the demanding schedule was recompensed by the opportunity to experience it in a leafy oasis close to the heart of London.