Ukraine and pilot training took centre stage at the Defence IQ Military Flight Training Conference. MS&T’s Dim Jones was happy to rejoin the real world and participate.

The agenda, like the audience, was a balance of industry and military perspectives. Two major changes I have noted in the years I have been attending MFTC are that industry-military partnerships are now established facts rather than aspirations, and industry are now promoting their services, rather than their products. There was ample opportunity to do so, both through sponsorship – a total of 16 sponsors in four tiers, ranging from the big-name primes to SMEs, and depending on how much spare dosh was available – and a small exhibition alongside the conference.

Unsurprisingly, the word ‘Ukraine’ was very much to the fore, not only in the many expressions of support and admiration for the leadership, armed forces and civilian population of that beleaguered nation, but also because of the sharp focus which recent events have brought to defence matters around the world. All forms of military flight training are important in securing balanced and effective armed forces but, once again, pilot training, and specifically fast-jet pilot training, was judged to be the most critical, not least because it takes so long, costs so much, and is so capacity-driven. In these days of reduced front lines, so much of the training throughput is dedicated to replacing trained aircrew whom we have failed to retain, and to providing quality instructors to train those replacements. I understand that the issues of recruitment, training and retention are addressed by different sets of planners, but they are inextricably interlinked, and a concentration on any one to the exclusion of the others is not ‘joined-up thinking’. 

It is an established maxim that, in pilot training, you can have any two of fast, good and cheap, but not all three. The objects of our endeavours, aka students, appreciate the good and the fast, while not being overly concerned with the cheap. Those who sign the cheques realise that fast is similarly good, and that fast can also lead to – shall we say – less expensive. 

Two main themes emerge from this debate: increasing the use of synthetic training; and decreasing the number of platforms in the training pipeline. An additional challenge is demographic change; we are constantly reminded that today’s decisions are taken in respect of tomorrow’s front line by people who are still steeped in yesterday’s perspectives. Still, significant factors in retention remain career opportunity, stability, family life, and employment opportunities outside; and, whereas military planners can do little about the airlines hiring, they can, as our Australian colleagues have firmly grasped – and they have unique challenges arising from the sheer size of their country – do something about the first three, although balancing these with operational effectiveness is not easy. In recent years, the proliferation of contract flying opportunities has also provided a compromise solution – leaving the military but continuing to contribute to its effectiveness.

One outstanding feature of the conference was the quality of the speakers – almost invariably those in pivotal positions in their organisations, the keynotes being the Air Officer Commanding the RAF’s No 22 (Training) Group, Air Vice-Marshal Rich Maddison, and Commander 19th Air Force USAF, Major General Craig D Wills. There were national perspectives from Sweden, Canada, Australia, The Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia, Israel and Pakistan, the latter two highlighting the difficulty of trying to run a training system while actively involved in operations. 

The cost of flying training, particularly for smaller forces, can be reduced through: outsourcing; collaborative ventures such as the International Flight Training School, which involves the Italian Air Force, Leonardo and CAE and is due to start training in Decimomannu this year; and alliance initiatives such as NATO Flight Training Europe (NFTE) and the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA). 

A consistent theme was that quality of instruction is key, and the RAF’s Commandant Central Flying School, Group Captain Martin Higgins, outlined his organisation’s role in instructor training, quality assurance and standardisation. The ‘live/synthetic balance’ is a recurring topic, and he pointed out that no two forces are the same, that there may be an irreducible minimum of live flying, that there are collateral damage areas to reduced live operations, such as air traffic control, engineering, physiology and supervision, and that the question must be answered ‘if we are only going to get five hours live flying a month, what are we going to pack into it?’

Having said that industry had veered away from promoting platforms and products, a notable exception was Aeralis, whose modular, reconfigurable approach to achieving platform commonality in training and light combat fleets looks set to jump off the drawing-board and into reality. Over the years, and more recently bolstered by the involvement of big names in the aircraft industry who have invested their own time and money in the project, opinion on this concept has progressed from ‘Nice idea, it’ll never work’ to ‘I’m still not utterly convinced, but this could be a game-changer.’ If success were to be measured by the enthusiasm of the Aeralis team, it certainly will be; I look forward to observing progress and reporting on it – watch this space! 

The 19th iteration of the Defence IQ MFTC (or the 20th, if you count the virtual 2021 event) took place at the Hilton Syon Park Hotel in West London, 29-31 March. The conference venue, while being convenient for Heathrow, was a bit ‘out-in-the-sticks’ for travellers to Central London; that said, the facilities were good, and we were well looked after.

The three-day conference was ably co-hosted by Lieutenant General (Ret’d) Anthony Rock, a former Inspector-General of the USAF, and Air Marshal (Ret’d) Stuart Evans, a former Deputy Commander NATO Allied Air Command. The programme ran on rails (even, with a bit of IT wizardry, the two virtual presentations from the USA and Pakistan) and comprised various formats: formal presentations; speaker panels; a short workshop; and a ‘one-on-one fireside chat’, which could have been stilted but, because of the gentlemen involved – Lockheed Martin’s Chauncey McIntosh and the RAF’s Director of Flying Training, Air Commodore Ian Sharrocks – was not. 

It felt good to be back at a live event, and the 200+ delegates from more than 25 nations evidently thought the same. The attendance was more or less evenly split between uniform and industry; a notable and total absence was the US military, who are either not yet ready to travel, have been made aware of the savings to be made by not doing so, or are concentrating on their upcoming domestic event. They were missed, but their absence was more than countered by a strong representation from both Canada and Australia.

So, MFTC 2022 provided a welcome resumption of ‘normal service’, and an interesting, stimulating and enjoyable three days for that community whose aim is the sustainment and improvement of military flight training. This year, ‘MFT USA’ will take place in San Antonio in July – bring your own cold beer and sunshade.