The parlous state of the UK’s military pilot training system has been much in the news of late. Although the RAF and the MoD have been at pains to downplay any suggestion of a crisis, there is little doubt that the situation is serious, and that the problems are both chronic and acute. 

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Flying training is an expensive business, even when conducted in the most efficient manner. When it is not, the cost-effectiveness decreases and the impact on those individuals caught up in the system increases, eventually with direct impact on the front line and operational capability. Flying training – from elementary through basic and advanced to entry to the front-line Operational Conversion Units (OCUs) – should take between 2 and 3 years, if one course leads seamlessly to the next.  However, we are hearing that, due to lack of course availability, it is now taking up to double this time or longer; fast-jet (FJ) training is the most severely impacted, but multi-engine (ME) and rotary wing (RW) are also affected. 

This, in itself, has many adverse consequences: 

  • it alters the military force demographic, in that pilots are spending arguably their best years as non-operational, leaving them less time on the front line if they wish to progress to higher rank; 
  • it is not good for the morale of those involved, leading to issues of retention later; and, 
  • whether or not the victims are otherwise usefully employed during their waiting, it is an inefficient use of resources and a waste of money.  

Recent reports have suggested that currently nearly 350 of the 600-or-so people in the flying training system are either holding or ‘refreshing’, ie, not progressing through the pipeline. 

This is not a new problem, but it is safe to say that it has got worse in the past 10 or so years. Since the end of the Cold War, all 3 services have – perhaps understandably – been subjected to one cost-cutting measure after another, often resulting in the disbandment of operational flying squadrons; the only minor ‘uptick’ was the result of the Strategic Defence & Security Review of 2015, which sought to remedy some of the more unwise cuts of SDSR 2010. 

Indeed, when I joined the front line in the early 70s, the RAF had more squadrons of Lightning alone than it has fighter squadrons in total today. 

This steady decline in the number of pilots required to man the front line has, through reallocation of experienced pilots from one aircraft type to another, helped to mask the problem. The retirement of the Tornado GR4 and F3, to be replaced by F35 and Typhoon – both single-seat – also reduced the advanced training and OCU assets required to train fighter Weapons Systems Officers (WSO). Lastly, the pilot-to-aircraft manning ratio on the front-line squadrons and, therefore, the total number of pilots required, has been reduced from the 2:1 deemed necessary for 24-hour operations during the Cold War.    

Put in its most simple terms, the training throughput requirement to maintain a steady state front line is the same as the outflow from that front line, be it to non-flying jobs, transfer to instructor roles, or departure from the services. Over the years, the number of non-flying posts filled by qualified and experienced aircrew has progressively been reduced to the absolute minimum. The need for quality instructors has not diminished; indeed, some courses, notably the FJ advanced course, have become more instructor-intensive, although a greater use of synthetic trainers, which can be taught and supervised by non-Service personnel, has partially mitigated this. Furthermore, these pilots, by virtue of their experience and ability, are exactly the people whom the front line can ill afford to lose. 

Lastly, there is little doubt that nobody in their right mind joins the armed forces to get rich. Industry offers jobs which pay better, both in the airlines and in seconded, loan or contract positions with other air forces, particularly for qualified instructors; the airlines and domestic industry also offer more family stability. The hiatus in commercial aviation caused by the pandemic has not only caused some to reconsider leaving, but has prompted others, recently departed, to rejoin, albeit temporarily. However, the airlines will eventually be hiring again, and the problem with retention in a small force is that each departure has commensurately greater effect. I am not privy to RAF retention figures, but I find it interesting that the current annual target for ab initio fast-jet pilots to enter the OCUs is roughly the same as when I was last directly involved with FJ pilot training, but we are servicing a considerably reduced front line. The final Catch-22 is that an outflow of qualified instructors increases the requirement for instructor training, which is itself the most instructor-intensive activity.

So, what is being done to mitigate this situation? The maximum age to commence pilot training has recently been lowered from 26 to 23; this partially addresses the demographic issue, but does nothing for the backlog or throughflow. The fallout from SDSR10 saw the RAF shed around a third of its trainee pilots, many through compulsory redundancy; this inflicted significant reputational damage which the RAF leadership is unlikely to wish to repeat. 


The capacity of the flying training system has been ‘uplifted’ to cope with the remedial action of SDSR15, but it had been reduced to the bare minimum before that, and expansion takes time, both to implement and to take effect. Furthermore, much of this extra capacity is currently absorbed by training foreign students as part of defence export sales agreements. 

A further complication is that pilots require refresher flying during delays between training phases, in order to retain or regain skills required for the next course, and this itself absorbs training effort. There are bottlenecks in the pipeline, of which advanced FJ training is one, and this will not be helped by the recent news that problems with the low-pressure compressor on the Adour 951 engine which powers the Hawk T2 will reduce availability of that aircraft for the next 2 or 3 years. This may be temporarily masked by the reality that the limiting factor is not the capacity of the training system to produce pilots, but the ability of the OCUs to accept and train them; the recently graduated Hawk course comprised 4 pilots. 

This has been exacerbated by an increased operational tempo caused by such factors as the conflict in Ukraine and the associated reinforcement of surrounding areas, and the need to provide F-35 aircraft for operational deployments of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers; these inevitably take away experienced aircrew from the bases where OCUs compete for scarce resources with front-line squadrons. 

The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, recently observed that “Our pilot pipeline is not where I would want it to be” and specifically confirmed that, although the UK currently has only about 20 F-35 (of 138 ordered) there are insufficient pilots to man them. A former RAF officer put it rather more succinctly: “It’s a shambles”.   

In sum, the military flying training pipeline has been a long-standing problem area, adversely affecting front-line operational capability, morale and cost-effectiveness.  Sadly, even with an injection of cash, it is hard to see how these will be resolved in the near future.