On a grey March day in 1966, one callow youth among many entered the hallowed portals of the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, Lincolnshire, to start a 2½-year course which would culminate in graduation as a Pilot Officer wearing the coveted RAF Pilot’s brevet. Some 56 years on, MS&T’s Martin ‘Dim’ Jones revisited the scene of some of the earliest of his many crimes to find that the hallowed portals remain outwardly pretty much the same, although the trees along Queen’s Avenue have grown somewhat in the intervening half-century. Appearances, however, are deceptive; almost everything else has changed.

In 1966, Cranwell was all about Officer Training, which included basic professional training in one of a number of aircrew and ground branch specialisations. With six entries of about 90 cadets, plus a Flying Training School (FTS) and a technical college teaching to degree standard, providing long-service commissioned officers for an Air Force of over 90,000 personnel, there was little real estate available for anything else. Today, the full-time trained strength of the RAF is around 30,000 and, although Initial Officer Training (IOT) remains Cranwell’s centrepiece, the estate is also home to Nos 3 and 6 FTSs, Headquarters Air Cadets, two Service Academies, the Air & Space Warfare School, Headquarters Central Flying School, East Midlands University Air Squadron, the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre (OASC) and the High-G Training and Test Facility.

Dim RAF College.jpg

MS&T Europe Editor Dim Jones (bottom left in group phot) duringhis days at Cranwell. Image credits: Illustrated London News, Capt. Martin Jones.

The Commandant of the RAF College is a 1-Star officer, answering to the Air Officer Commanding No 22 Group (AOC 22 Gp). The Commandant is responsible for: 

  • The RAF Officer Training Academy (RAFOTA); 
  • The RAF Cranwell unit; 
  • 6 FTS, which has responsibility for University Air Squadrons (UAS) and Air Experience Flights (AEF); 
  • The Tedder Academy of Leadership; 
  • The Robson Academy of Resilience; 
  • and RAF Halton, a separate Station which is the home of the Recruit Training Squadron and Aviator Command Squadron. 

This article focuses on IOT, which is delivered by RAFOTA. The current syllabus is the product of Programme Socrates which, inter alia, sought to streamline training and eliminate duplication, and Project Mercury, which enabled Socrates by modularising training, resulting in the Modular IOT Course (MIOTC), a four-module course, recently reduced from the former 30 weeks to 24. Each cadet entry is allocated to a RAFOTA squadron; there is currently no break in training (although from this November, there will be a one-week break between modules), and four courses run concurrently, with the Specialist Officer Initial Training (SOIT), Reserve Officers Initial Training (ROIT) and Commissioned Warrant Officers Course (CWOC) running intermittently alongside.

The mission of the RAF College is: “To Inspire, Attract, Train and Develop the Next Generation Royal Air Force”. Within the RAF College’s bailiwick, inspiration and attraction are the functions of the Youth and Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Team, the Air and Defence Colleges, and AEFs and UASs; between attraction and training, one could insert ‘selection’ which, in the case of officers and aircrew, is the province of the OASC. I will cover all of these in more depth separately. 

MIOTC is the training vehicle for direct entry officers; as regards short courses, the CWOC and ROIT are self-explanatory, and the Specialist Officers’ Initial Training Course is for professions such as medical, dental and chaplaincy. Personnel commissioning from RAF ranks below Warrant Officer, transfers from Army and Royal Marines, and direct entrants who have completed some Phase 1 training in UASs will join MIOT at the start of Module 2. For the rest, it starts on a Sunday – Day 0.

Day 0 activity includes a fitness test, a recurring theme through the course; fitness will already have been tested during the application, selection and familiarisation processes, and the requirements will be well-understood. There is some form of PE every day, principally aimed at building resilience; maintaining fitness levels is a key aspect of the course and individuals will be expected to undertake their own fitness training. Cadets are initially accommodated in 2-person rooms (coincidentally in the same barrack block in which I was incarcerated during my second 6-month term), before moving to College Hall at the start of Module 3. 

Module 1 is the Military Induction Module, closely mirroring the Basic Recruit Training conducted at RAF Halton, and imbuing all the skills and knowledge necessary to induct a civilian into military service, including: General Service Knowledge (GSK), foot drill, military discipline, weapon training and force protection, skill-at-arms, basic fieldcraft, First Aid and use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) equipment, physical training and education and, perhaps most significantly, military ethos and core values. 

Read More: OASC - Selection Central

Domestic life in Module 1 is very much driven by the NCO instructors. The cadets are a mix of those coming direct from school, graduates of UASs, and entrants from other civilian occupations, and include international personnel. Each student is issued with a personal laptop, through which they will be able to access training material in the Virtual Learning Environment. Practical and theory tests are conducted at every stage, and the module culminates in a 3-day exercise, in which cadets are both taught and assessed. Successful completion of Module 1 is a milestone since, should remedial training be required later on (for other than disciplinary reasons), it will never start earlier than the beginning of Module 2. 

At this point, Module 1 graduates are joined by other ex-UAS, inter-service transfers and serving personnel from the RAF. Term 2 is the first part of Development training, which focuses on Command, Leadership and Management (CLM). Leadership training is conducted under the auspices of the Tedder Academy of Leadership which, inter alia, is the author of RAF Air Publication (AP) 1 – Core Values and Ethos – and AP 7001, the Leadership Manual. This defines its subject as: ‘the projection of character, principles and behaviours that inspire people to succeed’, and divides it into four elements: leading oneself; leading a team; leading change; and leading an organisation. 

Module 2 concentrates on ‘knowing and leading yourself in order to lead others’. This aim is supported in part by Adventurous Training (AT) which, in the RAF, is the province of the Robson Academy of Resilience, of which more elsewhere; Term 2 includes a week-long visit to the Robson Centre at Crickhowell in Wales’s Brecon Beacons. AT has long been used to develop leadership and teamwork, to promote physical fitness, as a break from normal duties, and for ‘decompression’ after particularly stressful activities such as operational deployments. 

Module 2 also includes studies in Air and Space Power, delivered initially by instructors from the College’s academic partner, Portsmouth Military Education Team (PMET). Theory lessons are interspersed with live exercises: Practical Leadership Training 1, and Exercises Dynamic Edge and Eagle’s Edge, in the last of which cadets live in an austere environment and practise leading (and being a part of) small teams in a deployed military scenario. Students are coached and mentored by the staff, rather than taught, and exercise debriefs are facilitated by the staff, but conducted by the students. 

Not everyone will pass every phase at the first attempt; indeed, whereas the overall pass rate is 97%, the first-time rate is only 77%. Those who require remedial training, or who – through injury, personal circumstance or other unforeseen event – cannot progress through the course with their peers will be looked after by the Cadet Support Flight (CSF). In the case of injury, a cadet will receive no additional formal training and, when fit, will rejoin a subsequent course at the same point in the syllabus at which they left it. Those who fail a module will receive a three-week refinement package to address the areas of underperformance; then, following a Trainee Review Panel (TRP), they will return to the course at an appropriate point. The normal limitation on continued progress is two failures on any element of the summative phase, exceptionally three, following which a cadet will either return to the military occupation whence they came or, in the case of direct entrants, leave the Service and return to civilian life. 

Module 3 – ‘Explore Leadership – Practise and Develop’ – focuses on Command and Management as well as leadership of small teams. The first half concentrates on Command and Control (C2), explores the functions of command, advanced military planning and effective communication, and culminates in a four-day locally deployed exercise (Commander’s Edge), in which the cadets will learn to apply C2 theory in a practical scenario. There follows a series of sub-modules in three disciplines: Air C2 in the Air and Space Environment, taught by the RAF’s Air & Space Warfare School; Line Management Responsibilities, which include staff appraisals, discipline, military law, interview techniques, service writing and verbal skills; and Care and Welfare, delivered by the Padres, which covers stress management, conflict management and mental health and wellbeing. In the staff appraisal segment, cadets will write as the First Reporting Officer for an Officer’s Joint Appraisal Report (OJAR), with themselves as the subject, and then draft a Second Reporting Officer’s narrative on one of their peers. At the end of Module 3, a TRP will judge each cadet’s performance over the period. 

Read More: No 6 FTS - Experience Flights

Module 4 is subdivided into a Consolidation phase and a Transition and Graduation phase. Weeks one to three see trainees participate in an office management exercise (Exercise First Week), an Air C2-based exercise in a deployed scenario (Exercise Astra Edge), and Exercise Highland Edge, a week-long AT detachment to the Robson Resilience Centre at Grantown-on-Spey in Scotland, which will include a two and a half-day leadership exercise. In a recent change of practice, Highland Edge is assessed as well as instructed by the Grantown staff, who act in this regard as RAFOTA agents. 

Week 4 is devoted to an academic assessment in Air and Space Power and GSK, comprising a Viva presentation and the submission of a Defence Writing point brief. The Viva tests presentational and critical analysis skills, and is subdivided into two parts: a timed presentation on the subject of the brief, which is assessed on delivery and critical analysis; and a Q&A session with the Portsmouth team, which tests deeper understanding of the topic. To graduate, cadets must pass all phases, but the results of each phase will not be revealed until all are complete; candidates need only repeat those assessments which they failed. 

During Week 5, the staff will make their final assessments: those who are judged to have met every standard will celebrate on ‘Champagne Tuesday’ and prepare for graduation the following week. Those who are deemed to require further training will be debriefed on their performance, formulate an individual development plan to address areas of concern, and undertake a three-week refinement course, concentrating on those areas requiring improvement.

Key to the success and effectiveness of MIOT is the staff, both instructional and support. A RAFOTA instructor is rightly seen as a role model for aspiring officers, and a posting to Cranwell as a positive career move. Staff are carefully selected from those whose suitability has been annotated on their OJAR or SJAR; they are then trained to perform their duties on the Modular Staff Training (MST) course, with particular reference to the enhanced care of trainees. 

Phase 1 instructors are necessarily heavily biased towards the ground branches, principally because the limited numbers of aircrew instructors available are needed for Phase 2 training. I was particularly struck by two aspects of staff composition: firstly, the significant number of women, including many in key and very senior positions; and, secondly, the use of reservists. Many staff members are either full-time or part-time reservists, and this has benefits and drawbacks for both Service and individual. Reservists cost the defence budget less than regulars, but they are less widely employable or deployable, and their terms of service allow them to leave at short notice. Conversely, they can join the reserves in ranks lower than those held on their retirement from regular service, and their experience and skill sets may be well in excess of those one might expect of a regular officer in the same rank. They are also employable in roles which suit those skill sets and are not encumbered by career path considerations. Lastly, reserve service confers a degree of domestic stability.

In sum, MIOT has been developed to produce the most effective junior RAF officers in the most cost- and time-efficient manner. It is invidious to compare today’s product with the graduates of 1968, even if my memory could stretch back that far, but the aim remains the same: to become the best junior officer you can be. The course is certainly far more focused on the required skills and attributes than it was then, and there is no time for the gradual process of osmosis on which we relied. 

One of the drawbacks of early service for aircrew officers – and particularly fast-jet aircrew – is that they are less likely than their ground branch counterparts to be in command of anyone; but for an accident of fate which saw me spend most of a year as a platoon commander in a Scottish infantry battalion, such responsibility would have been 20 years and four promotions down the road. Thanks to the MIOT course, and periodic follow-on staff training which plucks them out of the cockpit and back into the real world, today’s graduates are much better equipped to serve both their seniors and their subordinates. 

It was both instructive and pleasurable to revisit the RAF College which is now much more diverse in its roles, but brings back happy memories and remains, to my mind, the heart of the RAF.