Outsourcing of aircrew training within the UK Armed Forces has been a long-running saga. The concept of what eventually became the Military Flight Training System (MFTS) was widely discussed in the MoD during the 1990s, but it was not until 2008 that the first contract was signed between the MoD and Ascent Flight Training. That 25-year agreement is now well into its second half, and many changes have been imposed and addressed along the way. MS&T’s Dim Jones visited Ascent in their Bristol HQ to get their take on past achievements and future plans. 

During the early 1990s, Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) were increasingly adopted by the then-Conservative government as a way forward in funding major projects across all departments, and this model was enthusiastically embraced by the Labour government when they came to power in 1997. Military flying training was an early candidate for a PFI and, in 1998, Bombardier were given a contract to replace Bulldog basic trainers with the Grob 115 Tutor, and to maintain them thereafter. It was expected that similar arrangements would be made for the replacement of Hawk T1 and Tucano aircraft, which had entered service in 1977 and 1989 respectively. As a result of the Defence Costs Studies of 1994, the MoD reviewed options for closer industry involvement in the delivery of flying training, assuming at that time that PFI would be the method of funding.

By the turn of the century, it was agreed that the PFI model would deliver a piecemeal solution, at risk of being unable to deliver the quantity and quality of aircrew required, and a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model was preferred. The initial invitation to industry to bid for selection as the MoD’s Training Service Partner (TSP), to include the financing and provision of new aircraft under a 25-year MFTS programme, was issued in 2003. Four consortia originally bid: BAE Systems, Serco and Bombardier; Rolls-Royce, Lockheed Martin and VT Group; Boeing and Thales; and Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), EG&G and Lear Siegler. 

However, in a separate agreement, BAE Systems were contracted to supply Hawk T2 Advanced Jet Training (AJT) aircraft to the RAF to replace the T1, and subsequently withdrew from the competition, citing conflict of interest. 

The MFTS contract was eventually awarded to Ascent Flight Training, a JV between Lockheed Martin and Babcock. Under the contract, Ascent is responsible for: 

  • Training Design, Acquisition, Implementation and Certification of aircraft and equipment; 
  • Training Delivery and Business Management; and 
  • Integration of the elements – aircraft, simulators, infrastructure and personnel – into a coherent training system. 

The MoD provides airfield services, and military flying instructors where required, and is also responsible for determining course input and output standards and personnel management of the training pipeline. 


The AJT contract between the MoD and Ascent was signed in 2008. Since then, there have been many adjustments to the size and profile of MFTS, not least as a result of successive Strategic Defence & Security Reviews: 2010, which reduced the requirements, and 2015 which increased them again. For instance, SDSR 2010 retired the Nimrod MR2 early, and cancelled its replacement, Nimrod MRA4 with no alternative identified. When the Long-Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) capability gap proved unsustainable, SDSR 2015 formalised the purchase of Boeing P-8A Poseidon (The Kipper Fleet Rises Again | Halldale Group ). It is worth noting that the SDSR is a whole-government, not an MoD, assessment.  

The first element of the MFTS programme to commence under Ascent management was Phase 4 AJT in 2011, and rear-crew training for various types started in 2012.  From 2012 to 2014, industry was engaged in competition for Fixed-Wing (FW) – comprising Elementary Flying Training (EFT), Multi-Engine (ME) and Basic Flying Training (BFT) – and Rotary Wing (RW), the contracts for which were awarded to Ascent in 2016. Most RW training had, until then, been delivered by the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS), latterly on Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel and Bell 412EP Griffin; Ascent replaced these with the Airbus H135 Juno and the H145 Jupiter respectively, and MFTS RW training commenced in 2018.  

Airbus H135 Juno HT1 at the Defence Helicopter Flying School.

Image source: UK MOD Crown Copyright 2020 / Ian Forshaw


In 2016, Ascent subcontracted provision of FW training (ME, EFT and BFT) to Affinity Flying Training Services, a JV between Elbit Systems and KBR. Affinity selected the Grob 120TP Prefect as the EFT platform, the Embraer Phenom for ME and the Textron T-6C Texan for BFT. EFT commenced in 2018, and ME and BFT in 2019. The Prefects and Phenoms are part of No 3 Flying Training School at RAF Cranwell and Barkston Heath, and the Texans part of No 4 FTS at RAF Valley in Anglesey, alongside the AJT Hawk T2s. Ascent is responsible for delivering the AJT course, but not for the availability of the Hawk T2s; these are provided to the MoD by BAE Systems, and the MoD then makes them available to Ascent. Aircraft numbers are 23 Prefect, 5 Phenom, 14 Texan, 28 Hawk T2, 29 Juno and 7 Jupiter, and the programme achieved Full Course Capability across all current Phase 2 training services in April 2020. 

The present pilot training pipeline comprises EFT, followed by a common basic training phase, then streaming to FJ, ME and RW, although both the Army and RN are moving towards a ‘rotary-only’ solution (ie, no FW EFT), and the RAF is considering following suit. This currently involves around 50% of the total RW pilot throughput, and has resulted in an increased availability of Prefect hours, some of which are being used for RPAS pilot and refresher training. Within the FJ element, various combinations of Prefect, T-6 and Hawk training are also being examined.  For the future, Affinity, on behalf of the MoD, have carried out tests on the Velis Electro battery-powered light aircraft as a possible future trainer. 

Most of the simpler MFTS Synthetic Training Devices (STD) are provided by Lockheed Martin, and the more complex by CAE. Both the RAF and Ascent are constantly seeking ways to use synthetics more effectively, thereby reducing both costs and pressure on the airborne platforms. Sometimes this involves upgrading or adapting STDs already owned, making maximum use of COTS products, and sometimes research into innovative technology, all of which is subject to critical cost/benefit analysis. 

Trainee pilots are exposed to ST from the outset, starting with computer-based training on Prefect through lower-order STDs to the most complex simulators on Phenom, Juno, Jupiter, Texan and Hawk. Classroom training is progressively being transferred to online, and there is also the possibility of trainees completing elements of ground school through distance learning while between courses, thus shortening formal course lengths and keeping trainees gainfully employed.      

Ascent also provides training for rear crew. RAF Rear Crew Training (RCT) has undergone major changes during the past 25 years, not least through the replacement of multi-crew transport and air-to-air refuelling (AAR) aircraft such as C-130K Hercules, VC10K and Tristar with pilot-only types such as C-130J, A-400M Atlas, C-17 Globemaster, and A330 Voyager (now operated by AirTanker Services), although the Weapons Systems Operator (WSOp) and ME Air Loadmaster (ALM) specialisations are retained, as are WSOp Crewmen on the Support Helicopter Force. Rear crew are now required by the RAF and the RN for: P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol; Rivet Joint, Shadow and Defender 4000 ISR; Wildcat and Merlin helicopters; and, in the near future, mission crew for Protector RPAS and Wedgetail AEW. 

In response to this requirement, Ascent has initiated the Future ISTAR & Rear Crew Training System (FIRCTS), which will train aircrew across a wide range of specialisations: Observers and Anti-Submarine Aircrewmen for the RN; and Weapons Systems Officers and Operators for the RAF, to include EW, Acoustics, Maritime and Land (RPAS), plus RPAS pilots. The addition of RAF ISTAR roles will quadruple the annual trainee throughput to 140.  

Under the Ascent solution, the company would be responsible for system design, courseware development and personnel provision, delivered in partnership with MoD personnel on site. The training would be delivered at RAF Cranwell and RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, ground school would take place at Cranwell, and the Flying and Synthetics phases at Culdrose. The competed elements are Aircraft Service Provision (ASP) and Ground-Based Training Equipment (GBTE) provision. The assumption is that the flying phase would utilise four upgraded Textron KingAir 360ER Avenger aircraft, in which trainees can use live sensors, such as radar, Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking and EO/IR, and emulators for EW and DataLink; however, Ascent is open to alternative proposals. The proposed GBTE provision comprises a suite of devices to simulate radar, AIS, EO/IR, Acoustics, EW and DL, with a dedicated RPAS ground control simulator. Trainees will progress direct from this course to the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for their future front-line type. The Assessment Phase for this bidding process has already started; the Request for Proposals (RFP) Release is expected in October, Contract Award in late 2024, Initial Course Capability in mid-2025 and Full Course Capability in mid-2027.  

The 25-year MFTS contract for Phase 2 flying training is now in Year 15, and Ascent and Affinity have thus far delivered about 115,000 flying hours from their 110-aircraft fleet, plus 80,000 simulator hours. The current annual totals are 27K flying hours and 20K synthetic. In terms of throughput, about 800 ab initio trainees and 400 instructors have graduated to the front line and FT schools, and the output for this year is expected to be around 250. 

Management of the training pipeline in terms of personnel is the responsibility of the MoD, while Ascent is responsible for delivering the required throughput to the agreed output standards. In practice, there is constant interaction between provider and user, working to an agreed annual plan, monitored through monthly progress meetings. 

Key to the output standard of the product is the quality of the instruction. Under MFTS, the military provides 75% of the airborne instructors and Ascent 25%; all the Hawk instructors are military. Ascent provides all of the ground school instruction and most of the simulator instructors, with assistance from the military for the most advanced missions. In an era of declining front-line strength and, more recently, commercial airline disruption, Ascent has been able to rely upon a steady supply of extremely qualified ex-military personnel, some of whom may have been employed in loan or contract positions with foreign air forces. This pool of ex-military experience has also assisted the company in maintaining a military ethos in flying training, a key element of the MFTS requirement. How difficult it will be to maintain this in the context of a resurgent airline market remains to be seen. The gradual move from classroom-led to student-led training should also reduce the instructor loading.

It is fair to say that the first half of the MFTS contract has not been without its challenges; what could have been a steady-state requirement has definitely had its peaks and troughs, mostly caused by the fluctuations imposed by SDSR decisions – for instance, the early retirement of the Harrier, Nimrod MR2 and Sentry forces, the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 and subsequent purchase of P-8, and the reorganisation of the SH force to retain the Puma for the RAF and transfer Merlin to the RN. It has not always been smooth sailing, and Ascent will freely admit that they have not always got the provision of services 100% right; however, MFTS and its PPP was a ground-breaking initiative, and overall the programme has worked well within the constraints and demands placed on it by external factors. Key to this has been, and will continue to be, the availability and quality of people and critical to the success of the remaining contract period will be a reduction in (elimination of would be nice) the repositioning of goalposts, and the establishment and retention of a modicum of flexibility to cope with the odd bump in the road which will inevitably occur.