Military Flying Training in Canada
Flight training, according to Colonel Denis O’Reilly, Commander of 15 Wing Moose Jaw, is simple: “Industry puts aircraft on the ramp, and we fly the heck out of them.”
The civilian-supported Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) flight training system allows Col O’Reilly to graduate between 100 and 115 pilots every year from the flight schools he oversees – Contracted Flying Training and Support (CFTS) in Portage la Prairie (Manitoba), and NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) in Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan). He orchestrates a mixture of government and contractor resources under Alternative Service Delivery (ASD) contracts that allow the RCAF to maintain military control over training and leave almost everything else to the civilian supplier. In the case of CFTS, that supplier is KF Aerospace (formerly known as Kelowna Flightcraft), while the NFTC program is run by CAE, a Canadian-based aerospace company.
Canada’s current military pilot training system was created in the early 1990s under the twin stresses of the Soviet Union’s collapse and failing government finances. In particular, the public was not ready for the enormous capital expenditure necessary to replace an aging fleet of jet training aircraft, but the government was unwilling to outsource flight training to another country. At that point, Canadian aerospace company Bombardier stepped forward with an innovative proposal for NFTC. This would see a private company finance and buy the necessary aircraft and flight simulators, and provide all the necessary training services and support. Government would benefit from a steep reduction in the costs of uniformed personnel and avoid a large and politically unpalatable capital expenditure.
Approved in 1996, the $2.8 billion contract for NFTC covered equipment and maintenance management of the Moose Jaw air training base, and provided for ground school instructors over a period of 21 years. CAE purchased the NFTC commitment from Bombardier in 2015. In 2017, the Government of Canada extended the contract to run until at least 2023.
Under the deal, the Department of National Defence supplies the training syllabus, flight instructors and manages any government-to-government agreements to provide training while CAE manages the overall NFTC program and provides classroom and simulator instructors, aircraft maintenance and a range of other services.
CAE had taken the natural step from developing and maintaining flight simulators, to becoming an integrator of training systems that are capable of meeting very broad or very specific requirements for military flight training.
By providing civilian instructors (including former military personnel) for the academic and simulator portions of the training, the program frees up military pilots to concentrate on their respective military duties.
CFTS is the other ASD contract related to RCAF pilot training, and incorporates lessons learned from NFTC to cover primary flying training, multi-engine and helicopter instruction. Awarded in 2005, the 22-year, $1.77 billion CFTS contract is managed by KF Aerospace in Portage la Prairie.
With the latest of those contracts expiring in 2027, the government has less than 10 years to replace them. That may seem like an ample amount of time, but military flight training is a complex business with many moving parts, and those developing the Future Aircrew Training (FAcT) requirement today are no doubt studying these multi-billion dollar lessons carefully.
The NFTC contract ran into problems almost as soon as it began, nearly two decades ago. Technical troubles on the turboprop Harvard II trainer kept the aircraft grounded for several months. The backlog eventually became so serious that some student pilots were forced to wait almost two years to begin their training. Because the previous fleet of Tutor aircraft had already been taken out of service, there was no alternative trainer and the schedule was seriously disrupted. Perhaps equally bad, from a government point of view, was the fact that contract payments still had to be made. As the Auditor General noted in 2006, “Due to problems during the program’s start-up, the amount of training that the contractor was able to provide was well below what the contract had stipulated. As a result, the program could not train the number of pilots needed by National Defence. However, the Department was still making fixed payments called for under the contract. By December 2001, […] had paid about $65 million for training it missed, largely because of problems with the aircraft.”
More technical problems in 2008 and 2011 took the Hawk jet trainer fleet out of service for repairs, again seriously disrupting flight operations. To maintain pilot availability, the RCAF was forced to send dozens of student pilots to train in the United States. Around that time, the Royal Danish Air Force left the program, an ominous sign for an initiative that had foreign sales as a key objective.
In recent years, however, the NFTC program has hit its stride and, as Col O’Reilly proudly points out, the overall RCAF pilot training system has produced record numbers of pilots over the past three years. Part of this pilot production can be attributed to innovations in the training syllabus as well as optimizing the use of both military and civilian instructors. The other welcome change has been the involvement of CAE, a company entirely focused on training.
“Our acquisition of the NFTC program was a real milestone for CAE because it signaled our complete transformation in the defence market to becoming a training systems integrator,” says Joe Armstrong, Vice President and General Manager, CAE Canada. “We are now running one of the world’s premiere military pilot training programs to produce next-generation fighter pilots, and it is in our best interest to ensure that the primary customer at NFTC – the Royal Canadian Air Force – is beyond satisfied with the services we provide.”
RCAF and government officials agree that the NFTC program is now working as intended – a true government/industry partnership with everyone focused on the same goal of producing highly-qualified pilots. CAE’s focus and flexibility with the NFTC program, such as facilitating winter deployments and making both aircraft and simulator modifications, has helped in achieving the goal – and the resulting pilot production is evidence of that.
To private contractors, military flight training contracts can be a very mixed blessing. Almost by definition, they are long and lucrative, and for service providers they can smooth out highly intermittent revenue but, as in the Canadian situation, the client can be demanding and present a series of moving expectations.
Aircraft availability is obviously one critical variable in pilot training, and instructors are another. In-flight training for RCAF pilots is delivered by RCAF instructors while classroom and simulator instruction is delivered by industry. This approach helps alleviate some of the cost of uniformed personnel performing training functions that can be done by experienced ex-military personnel, while at the same time having active-duty RCAF instructors in the cockpit helps maintain the culture and ethos that is critical to preparing a military pilot. With demand for pilots at an all-time high, and qualified flight instructors in short supply, balancing the needs of the training program with operational requirements is always a challenge, which is another reason a government/industry partnership can work well for both.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
In May, 2018 CAE and KF Aerospace announced the creation of a 50/50 joint venture company called SkyAlyne Canada to improve the services each already delivers to the Canadian customer but also to explore new business that will inevitably arise well before current contracts expire.
CAE is becoming well-known as a great Canadian success story in the aviation training business, with more than 9,000 employees in 35 countries, and 160 training sites around the world. For its part, KF Aerospace may carry a smaller footprint but has years of experience in the practical, day to day business of delivering training to the RCAF.
Over seven decades, CAE has grown into a global champion for Canadian aviation, creating and delivering simulator-based training programs around the world. The company now operates at more than 160 sites and training locations in 35 countries and employs some 8,000 people. Among its most familiar products are the towering flight simulators used to train civilian and military pilots, but CAE also manages the classrooms that prepare students for simulators, and provides the aircraft for flight training.
The Future Aircrew Training program not only aims to bring together all the current training done at Moose Jaw and Portage la Prairie but also intends to fold in training for Air Combat Systems Officers and Airborne Electronic Sensor Operators. The integration of all the airborne training elements will no doubt afford the opportunity for significant savings, but it may introduce new and unknown challenges to the contractors. As with the original NFTC and CFTS programs, a certain amount of learning will go with the airspace. Fortunately for Canada, pilot training represents a key industrial capability, going all the way back to World War II with the British Commonwealth Aircrew Training Plan, so there is no shortage of in-country experience and expertise to leverage.
Canada’s Air Force has grappled with a continuous shortage of pilots in recent years. At last published count, the RCAF is about 17% (or 275 pilots) short of its authorized allocation. There are both short and long-term plans in place to address pilot recruitment, training and retention. For example, the military is working on retaining existing pilots by offering higher incomes and a lower burden of administrative effort, and by enticing recently retired pilots back.
While the CFTS and NFTC programs are now producing a higher output of pilots, another challenge is the limited capacity of the next stage of training, in which newly-winged RCAF pilots advance to the Operational Training Units. Making changes at the OTU level impacts the fine balance of operational capability, so changes must be progressive.
The pilot shortage making news headlines of late is a bit misleading. What is important to remember is that efficient pilot training is all about managing the delicate balance of throughput. To train more pilots, the whole system needs to be expanded and this requires more instructors, more aircraft, and more simulation.
The 2015 Defence Acquisition Guide said the Future Pilot Training System or FPTS (predecessor of the FAcT program) “must ensure a seamless transition with existing pilot training programs and an agile and flexible production level to meet future needs.” Assuming a continuity of expectations from FPTS, it is clear that, with FAcT, the government wants to avoid, to the extent possible, a complete shutdown of flight operations due to the failure of the training system. The FAcT requirements will also examine the platform situation, as the existing Hawk fleets are currently undergoing a fatique life improvement program. FAcT will have to search out new training aircraft to meet future requirements.
The latest Defence Acquisition Guide, issued in 2016, called for a Request for Proposal release in 2019-2020, Contract Award in 2021, and Final Delivery from 2026 to 2036 for FAcT. The guide mentions unique Canadian challenges, the ability to exploit technological advances, and “value for Canada”, but most important to prospective bidders may be that “all training options are being considered.”
There are only a few comparable flight training programs around the world for FAcT contract designers to consult: the US-based Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program and the United Kingdom Military Flying Training System are the largest. In reality, the new flight training contract will draw on the hard-won Canadian lessons of more than a quarter century of public-private experience to design the future program.
Richard Bray is a senior FrontLine defence writer.