The UK Armed Forces' privatised pilot training system is taking nearly seven years to turn new recruits into frontline-ready aviators, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
The NAO investigation into the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS) contract, which is let to a consortium backed in part by US arms multinational Lockheed Martin, thundered that the RAF was short of 330 pilots, while almost half of students entering the UKMFTS system last year failed to complete their intermediate training.
"In its worst year (2018-19), 49 students completed Phase 2, an 86 per cent shortfall against the [Ministry of Defence's] current aircrew requirements. In its best year (2015-16), 182 students completed Phase 2, a 21 per cent shortfall," said the NAO in its latest report.
Damningly, RAF fast jet pilots, the two-winged master race* who fly the service's Typhoon and F-35 fighters, were taking more than seven years to get from joining the Air Force to being declared ready for frontline duties.
Part of the underlying cause of the problems identified by the NAO is the contractor's failure to provide enough aeroplanes and instructors. Originally the post-Cold War era RAF had more than 100 Hawk advanced training jets, 130 Short Tucano intermediate trainers and 89 Grob Tutor basic training aeroplanes. Ascent, the Lockheed Martin-backed consortium, is replacing these with 23 Grob Prefect training aeroplanes, 10 Texan II fast jet trainers and five Embraer Phenom 100s. The MoD itself continues providing modernised Hawks.
Unsurprisingly, 44 out of 369 pilot training courses so far have been cancelled, with the NAO stating that "aircraft availability has been poor across the system". This was not helped when two training aircraft, both Phenoms, were grounded last year (PDF) after a mid-air collision where the two bizjets' wingtips brushed each other in what was rumoured to be low-level formation flying practice.
The upshot is that next year the MoD "expects to train 125 aircrew in other ways, such as through civilian training providers, at a cost of £15m". The civvy-trained pilots will then need extra military training to bring them up to full speed.
In a statement to The Times the MoD said: "The Military Flying Training System is the biggest transformation of UK military aircrew training in a generation and we welcome the audit office report on this programme. We acknowledge there have been some challenges, the transition to the new system is now well under way and a steady improvement in aircrew throughout is being seen in all areas."
Meanwhile, the RAF told the NAO it would take 20 years to sort out its pilot shortage.
Elementary flying training from UKMFTS is delivered to Army drone operators, which may go some way towards explaining the ongoing problems with Watchkeeper drone crashes. ®
* The "two-winged master race" nickname mocks how RAF pilots within the service historically enjoyed all the best jobs and career opportunities, ahead of their colleagues from non-flying branches. With the RAF having shrunk considerably in the last 20 years, this situation has changed somewhat.