The Army Aviation Centre at Middle Wallop

1 August 2014

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The AAC provides training for Army Air Corps personnel of all ranks. Europe Editor Dim Jones recounts his visit to the Centre.

Back in the early 90s, and despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, the threat of the armoured hordes roaring across the North German Plain was still exercising the minds of those in charge at the UK MoD. The problem was that advances in the armour of modern tanks and air defence systems had outstripped those of, respectively, the opposing weaponry and the means of delivering it. There were fixes to be had but, sadly, they were costly, and the Treasury was already demanding its ‘peace dividend’. The Defence Procurement Minister of the day, an interesting gentleman by the name of Alan Clark (of ‘Diaries’ fame) devised a wheeze which he called the ‘Anti-Armour Wedge’ whereby, instead of allocating funds separately to the Army and the RAF, all money for anti-armour systems would go into a pot, to be competed for on merit. The RAF’s contenders were, unsurprisingly, air-delivered weapons (SWAARM and Brimstone) and the Army’s MLRS III and Attack Helicopter (the competitors were Eurocopter Tiger, Apache AH-64A and D, AH-1 Cobra, A129 Mangusta and Rooivalk). SWAARM and MLRS III were eliminated as contenders, and Brimstone eventually entered RAF service in 2005; however, it was the deployment of Apache in the late 90s that radically transformed the role and capability of the Army Air Corps.

The Army Aviation Centre is located at Middle Wallop, a picturesque airfield in Hampshire in the South of England, and still the largest grass airfield in the UK, and possibly in Europe. Its role is to provide training for Army Air Corps personnel of all ranks, and it comprises two AAC regiments: 2 Regt, which provides support, administration and ground training; and 7 Regt, which provides flying training. The Commandant has a dual chain of command, being responsible to the Director-General of Army Recruiting and Training (DGART), and also to Commander Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), a tri-service organisation. Indeed, for some administrative purposes, he also has a ‘dotted line’ to Commander 11 Brigade, a regional organisation. In the case of aircrew, the Centre takes Army graduates of tri-service rotary-wing (RW) training, and provides 6 months Army tactical training (the Operational Training Phase or OTP) before converting them to their front-line aircraft types and, with the exception of Apache, to their operational roles. Groundcrew are also trained here in the two principal roles of aircraft refuelling/rearmament and communications, and training of reserve personnel in ground trades also started this year.

The Centre and Middle Wallop, having no deployment or operational commitment, are heavily contractorised; indeed, civilian contractors significantly outnumber the 350-or-so MoD personnel, comprising military and civil servants, and the only military aircraft engineer on the base is the Chief Aircraft Engineer, whose role is to monitor the various contracts and ensure compliance. A significant proportion of flying instructors are also civilian. This contractorisation works well, and produces significant savings; in the view of the Commandant, there is scope for further civilianisation in areas such as bulk fuel supplies and the Quartermasters’ departments.


Recruitment of Army aircrew differs slightly from that of the RAF and RN in that, although they enlist as AAC, they train to be officers and soldiers first, and only then do they progress to aptitude testing, which is conducted by the RAF at Cranwell. The Army accepts slightly lower overall test scores than the other two services, but analyses performance in critical modules carefully and in detail. A successful Army pilot candidate will then undergo 13 hours of flying grading on the Grob Tutor at Middle Wallop, the aim of which is not predominantly to instruct, but to assess the ability to learn in the air and, therefore, suitability for further training, thereby minimising costly failures at later stages of training. There follows Elementary Flying Training (EFT), also on the Tutor, at RAF Barkston Heath, and Single-Engine Basic and Advanced Rotary Wing flying training on the Squirrel at the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) at Shawbury. The tri-service aspects of this training are important in that, although personnel join a single Service, and are rightly proud of it, JHC is a joint organisation, and major operations (such as Op Herrick in Afghanistan) will almost invariably be joint; early exposure to the other Service elements of the helicopter force is, therefore, valuable.

On return to Middle Wallop, the next phase for the pilots is OTP on 670 Squadron, still on the Squirrel, but concentrating on tactical applied flying and airmanship. This includes training in both right- (handling pilot) and left-hand (non-handling pilot/mission commander) seats for all five Army Aviation roles – Offensive Action, Control and Direction of Firepower, Command Support, ISTAR and Tactical Mobility – and their various subsets. At the end of OTP, pilots will receive their AAC Wings, and will be streamed to their operational type, which will be one of 6: Apache, Lynx, Gazelle, Bell 212, Islander (fixed-wing) or Wildcat. All aircrew roles are open to female aircrew, and they have served with distinction in all of them. The AAC is acutely aware of the training gap between the Squirrel (single-engine, analogue and no weapons) and the front-line types (twin-engine, glass cockpit, digital, complex systems, sensors and armament), and does its best to bridge it, since upload of training to front-line types (the cost of operating an Apache is comparable to that of a Typhoon) is expensive. To this end, the OTP Squirrels are NVG-compatible, and are fitted with the MX-10 camera, as used in the Lynx, a dummy Defensive Aids Suite, and Sentinel, a stand-alone digital cockpit information system, which allows off-board mission planning and data transfer, on-board mission management, and the transponder-based Traffic Avoidance System (TAS). Lastly, aircrew carry the Inzpire GECO kneepad tablet, which embodies both the Aviation Moving Map and Wires Avoidance System (AMMWAS).

671 Squadron converts pilots and trains ab-initio crewmen (who have graduated from specialist rear-crew training courses) to Lynx, Gazelle, Bell 212 and Dauphin N3. For Lynx and Gazelle, conversion is to type (CTT – how to fly the aircraft) and to role (CTR – how to fight the aircraft), for 212 and Dauphin to type only, role-training being accomplished on the front line. The Lynx is in operational service in Mk 7 and Mk 9a variants, although both are being progressively withdrawn from service (by 2015 and 2018 respectively), to be replaced by the Wildcat. Ab-initio Lynx training will cease, Lynx 7 aircrew will be converted to 9A on the front line, and ab-initio students will go to the Wildcat. The standard Lynx crew is three: pilot in the RHS, mission commander in the LHS, crewman manning the M3M or GPMG in the door. All 671 Sqn Lynx graduates are qualified aircraft commanders; crewmen may also qualify in winching. Lynx aircraft provide support for all front-line roles, by day and night (using Gen3 NVG). The Gazelle undertakes operations in Northern Ireland and in Canada, and the Bell 212 supports training in Kenya (25 Flight) and Brunei (7 Flight), where duties include range clearance, CasEvac and limited troop movement. The Dauphin is employed on communications and VIP duties.

Trainee AAC ground crew work on the Apache Rearment Trainer. Image credit: ATIL

Apache Bound

Aircrew bound for Apache leave OTP for 673 Squadron, where they will convert to type only, CTR being conducted at Wattisham in Suffolk. The course is intended to give a functional grounding in aircraft handling, formation and operation of all the systems by day and night; tactical application is the province of CTR. Nevertheless, the course is intense and the content comprehensive. It was originally delivered for a preponderance of experienced aircrew from other operational types; the current course is 100% ab-initio. There is also a drive to reduce the course length from eight months to six, in order to align with other courses. The AAC variant of the Apache, the AHMk1, is an immensely capable aircraft, equipped as it is with the Longbow millimetre-wave target acquisition radar, and the Modernised Target Acquisition & Designation System/Pilot Night Vision System (MTADS/MPNVS), as well as a comprehensive self-defence suite. The Longbow radar can detect up to 1023 targets, track up to 128, prioritising the top16, and its position above the rotor head enables it to see while the helicopter fuselage is concealed by terrain or obstacle. Weaponry includes AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, CRV-7 70mm unguided rockets, and the M230E1 30mm chain gun, which can be fixed in a forward-firing position, directed by the FCR, MTADS, MPNVS or slaved to the pilot’s helmet-mounted sight. Any impression that attack helicopters should be small does not survive a first close-up view of the Apache, whose length from rotor tip to tail is 57ft. The Apache crew comprises a pilot in the rear cockpit and a mission commander in the front. The pilot’s job is flying and platform protection, reacting to and defeating a threat, normally using the chain gun, the mission commander’s to operate the systems and fight the platform. Most systems can be operated from both cockpits, but a few from only one or the other. The mission commander is usually, but not always, the aircraft commander – there is some pressure to qualify officer aircrew (who are affected by career profile constraints which do not apply to their NCO colleagues) early, at which point they may not have the requisite experience for aircraft command, and may well be crewed with an ‘old-and-bold’ NCO pilot.

673 Sqn students will practise all roles in both seats, and will leave for Wattisham with a recommendation for either front seat or back; CTR training is seat-specific. Following a 6-week groundschool, the CTT course is divided into 4 phases: day, instrument, the ‘bag’ phase, and night, which comprises half the course. The ‘bag’ phase allows for the blackout of the rear cockpit to allow a controlled familiarisation with the monocular vision system. In the monocular vision system one eye sees the ‘real world’, and the other looking through the monocle sees the FLIR view of that world. This can give rise to problems, such as ‘binocular rivalry’, where one eye fights the other for control of the brain. There is also the issue that one eye is looking from the rear seat, and the other is seeing through the FLIR, some 10 feet in front, leading to parallax issues and possible disorientation. As someone who has never had to cope with such difficulties, I found the whole concept literally eye-watering. The Final Handling Test profile includes pairs close and tactical formation down to 2-rotors’ separation, and both lead and wingman, approach to a holding area, nap-of-the-earth flying, threat detection (but not reaction), general handling and emergencies. Planned enhancements to Apache include an image intensifier, which will be sensor-fused with the FLIR to provide the optimum picture under all light conditions.

Synthetic Training

Synthetic training is integral to all courses at Middle Wallop, and accomplished in a variety of devices, ranging from desk-top trainers through part-task trainers to full-mission domed simulators. Each phase in the Lynx and Apache courses is a blend of synthetic and live; indeed, there are only two live sorties in the Apache instrument phase – a familiarisation sortie and the rating test. The Lynx Aircrew Training Service (LATS) has been operated and maintained by Thales since 2001, and the FMS, now the sole remaining Lynx simulator in AAC service, is equipped with ThalesView graphics, and can be cockpit-reconfigured between Mk 7 and Mk 9a. The Attack Helicopter Training Service (AHTS) is run by Aviation Training International Limited (ATIL) a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) joint venture between AgustaWestland and Boeing, and comprises aircrew, groundcrew and maintenance training, accommodated in a purpose-built facility. The front and rear seats of the Apache FMS are housed in separate domes. Both Apache and Lynx simulators have received recent upgrades, and are regarded by their users as first-class.

The Aviation Command and Tactics Trainer (ACTT) is an Army-owned and -run simulator which comprises linked Lynx and Apache (front only) cockpit mock-ups with visual displays served by various terrain databases, of which the Afghan model is particularly accurate. The ACTT is about 20 years old, and was originally funded from a budget underspend; it has since been upgraded on an opportunity basis from further underspends, such as that accruing from the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, which temporarily precluded live flying. Supported by SME role-players, and run from a comprehensive instructor control station, the ACTT is, as its name suggests, a procedural mission command and tactics trainer, not a flying simulator. It is used extensively by students on the OTP course at Middle Wallop, and also on CTR courses for front-line aircraft, and is available for use by front-line units for bespoke and pre-deployment training. It is normally operated stand-alone, but can connect to other devices and networks, such as the Air Battlespace Training Centre (ABTC) at RAF Waddington (see MS&T 4-2010), and the Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility (MSHATF) at RAF Benson (see MS&T 5-2010), although differing operating systems and databases render this less than straightforward. The ACTT itself would benefit from the inclusion of SH cockpits, reflecting the extent to which SH and AAC aircraft operate together in-theatre. The ACTT is maintained by Rockwell-Collins, under a contract which runs until 2021.

Turning to ground training, 2 Regt’s 668 Sqn provides specialist training, and runs more than 50 different courses. 676 Squadron supervises the Phase 2 training of groundcrew personnel, following their basic Army (Phase 1) training elsewhere. Consequent on the Deepcut inquiry, soldiers at this stage of training must be closely supervised by vetted personnel and, indeed, the unit is subject to OFSTED inspection. They graduate from Phase 2 as Class 3 groundcrewmen or communications specialists, which qualifies them to work under supervision, and all will have an HGV driver qualification. They will, in time, progress to Class 2 (unsupervised) on their front line units, and Class 1 (supervisor), for which they have to return to Middle Wallop. Running alongside this Phase 3 training are a series of command and leadership courses associated with promotion to JNCO and SNCO ranks, for which basic infantry tactics are used as the training medium, since they provide a better framework for assessing leadership qualities and robustness of character than the activities which normal AAC duties might require them to perform. The Warrant Officer’s course is more focused on the particular skills which will be required in that rank. All Apache groundcrew undertake an intensive course at ATIL, which includes practical training on sophisticated refuelling and rearming simulators.

The Future

So what of the future for the Army Aviation Centre? The Bell 212 will shortly go out of service, with a replacement about to enter the assessment phase of procurement, and Wildcat training will take place at RNAS Yeovilton. The next generation of Apache could be the AH-64E purchased directly from the US, with training provided in the US, or could be built in the UK under licence, with training provided in the UK. As regards groundcrew training, reductions in the size of the AAC have resulted in a loss of flexibility associated with early streaming to groundcrewman or communications. Studies are being conducted into the resource and training-time implications of reversing this trend, and reintroducing an element of dual qualification. In the S&T arena, the Defence Operational Training Capability (Air) (DOTC(Air) study is addressing the issues of the defence-wide requirement and the connectivity and interoperability of systems. Lastly, Middle Wallop itself could be vulnerable to estate rationalisation measures associated with the implementation of the Military Flying Training System (MFTS), although JHC aspires to develop it into a centre of excellence for battlefield helicopters across the Services, ideally placed as it is at the heart of Low Flying Area 1 (LFA1) and close to the combined army activity conducted on Salisbury Plain. Whatever the imperatives and advantages of joint operations, there is limited commonality between the operational RW roles of the 3 services, and there is still a need for single-service esprit; the Army Aviation Centre provides that focus for the Army Air Corps.


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