back to article Auditors bemoan time it takes for privatised RAF pilot training to produce combat-ready aviators

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 …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

    Simple solution : put the auditors in the planes and let's see how long they take to be able to fly.

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"


      If you read the rest of the article, you will see that the auditors are not commenting on the ability of the pilots, but the availability of resources to train them. Cancellation of 44 out of 369 pilot training courses due to lack of instructors or equipment is not a good way to get a decent pass rate.

      1. NoneSuch Silver badge

        Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

        Pilots are supposed to wash out of training if they cannot meet the standard. That's so multi-million dollar strike aircraft don't become smoking craters before an actual war starts. Seven years is an aboration, however and does not reflect well on the program (regardless of the excuses.)

        With Denmark poo-poo'ing the sale of Greenland to the Great Pumpkin of the US, the UK may be next on the auction block with a successful no-plan BREXIT.

        So the yanks will sort it out, in time. Unless of course, sanity comes back into fashion and this whole BREXIT BS is squashed forcibly.

        1. fidodogbreath Silver badge

          Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

          Seven years is an aboration

          As opposed to crashing into a tree, which would be an arboration...

          1. RichardB

            Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

            It's starting to look as if they have pruned back the RAF just a little too far

            1. quxinot Silver badge

              Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

              Keep making puns and everyone will get treed off!

        2. phuzz Silver badge

          Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

          RTFA, The US already own the training program:

          "which is let to a consortium backed in part by US arms multinational Lockheed Martin"

          (Not to mention the extensive historic co-operation between the RAF and the US military. AFAIK all training on the F-35 has taken place in the US so far)

          1. F111F

            Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

            Because your weather* is so damn dodgy all the time.** Luke AFB in Arizona has 361 days of sunshine on average each year.***

            *Why is the UK so green? The three Ms...Moss, Mold, and Mildew...

            **Observation from 6 years in the UK, 4 at RAF Lakenheath and 2 at RAF Upper Heyford.

            ***Observation from 4 years at Luke AFB.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

              Yes, we know, all battles will happen in Arizona weather...

      2. theblackhand Silver badge

        Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

        My dodgy maths:

        (trainee pilot + plane) * 3 years = pilot

        (trainee pilot + (0.45 * planes)) * 7 years = pilot

        ((auditor + X planes) * Y years) + (trainee pilot +(0.45-X planes) * (3/(0.45-X) years) = 1 pilot + 1 auditor that can fly a bit.

        Solve for X and Y...

    2. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

      I guess you missed the point where it explains that they went from 219 training aircraft to 33!

      (I'm not counting the Hawks because the article says that the MOD still provides them, but I somewhat doubt they provide all 100 of them, so the numbers are probably even worse!)

      is it any wonder they cant get enough people trained...

      1. LDS Silver badge

        Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

        Of course, as any private company they first cut operating costs, personnel and equipment...

        I'm just surprised the MoD didn't impose a minimum operating capacity.

        1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

          Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

          I'm just surprised the MoD didn't impose a minimum operating capacity.

          The UK government and civil service are not renowned for writing water-tight contracts.

          1. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

            Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

            As this is the RAF I'm assuming you meant an air-tight contract?

          2. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

            >The UK government and civil service are not renowned for writing water-tight contracts.

            Wouldn't be surprised if the contract was in GBP and not USD and/or with some notional fixed exchange rate, with the GBP being circa 20% lower against the USD than in 2016, that is quite a lot of 'additional' cost given much of the training is being done in the US. Hence with costs are being accrued in USD, it would be natural for Lockheed to try and minimise its expenditure whilst finding ways to increase income. The UK government would be happy that the bills seemed to be within budget and so not question too much - until someone started a blame game...

          3. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: watertight contracts

            "The UK government and civil service are not renowned for writing water-tight contracts."

            How would senior politicians and civil serpents ever get cushy jobs with their suppliers if the suppliers actually had to cost-effectively deliver what was actually required, rather than what's in the contract?

            (Not just in the MoD either, but that's another story for another day).

            This from the BBC Radio 4 "File on 4" programme transcript for the relevant episode: officers in training are being well paid for not doing much at all, and outsourced "training providers" are being paid whether or not courses have anyone on them or not.


            DEITH:Matt passed the selection test –called grading –and was waiting to do the basic flying course, run by Ascent, at RAF Barkston Heath in Lincolnshire.Buthis training never got off the ground.

            KITSON:I think the most frustrating part was that after doing grading,which is an incredibly challenging week or two weeks on the squadron,doing different maths tests and being in the back of the aircraft trying to do the job of an observer,working as a crew, we thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got a bit of momentum now, we’re actually doing something that we joined to do.’

            DEITH:Yeah, it’s becoming real.

            KITSON:Yeah. So then to be said, right, you’re going to a squadron with no set date of when you’re starting to join, it was just, oh it’ll be in six months, then that sixmonths maybe ninemonths, and then that became a year, so with no set date you’ve got a load of highly motivated guys -it’s frustrating.

            DEITH:When you asked -because you must have asked -what’s the delay, what’s the hold up? What was the answer?

            KITSON:A lot of the courses ahead of me, the guys thatjoined ahead of me,had been changed from pilots to observer because of the defence cuts. There was a new aircraft coming inthat had to go through certification and all the processes it takes to get an aircraft into the military.

            DEITH:It’s not cheap keeping officers hanging around.Matt was being paid about £40,000 a year to kill time.A recent Freedom of Information request revealed the half-year wage bill for officers on hold was almost £5 million. So it’sprobably reasonable to double that to £10 million for a year.That’s before you even start to work out the cost to the military when officers like Matt Kitson leave.


      2. Graham 25

        Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

        They lost a lot of training vehicles when the different types of aircraft requiring training were taken out of service. So no more training aircraft for Harrier, Jaguar, Tornado, Nimrod to name a few so you would expect a reduction is aircraft to train.

        ts also worth mentioning that the Contractor cannot go out and buy more actual military aircraft if it wants more - that has to come from HMG.

        Personally i would be highly suspicious of the claim of over 200 training aircraft. Thats bigger than the front line command.

        1. Gaius

          Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

          Remember that the RAF has shrunk from 75000 people in 1990 to 35000 today (on paper, actually probably much less).

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

            Remember that the RAF has shrunk from 75000 people in 1990 to 35000 today (on paper, actually probably much less).

            If they follow most bureaucratic policies in government and even the corporate world, there's a hell of a lot more management and admin types then worker bees who are actually doing something. And as we know in IT, outsourcing is never a good idea for optimum performance.

            1. Cederic Bronze badge

              Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

              They always have. A pilot can't fly an aircraft unless a crew maintain it on a station protected by rock apes that themselves use vehicles maintained by technicians who need somewhere to live. Add in logistics, support for families, assuring people get paid, training and other essentials and pilots rapidly become a rarity within the organisation.

              Would you structure it differently?

        2. LDS Silver badge

          Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

          When we're speaking about basic and intermediate trainers it doesn't matter what the pilot will fly later, especially the basic ones are the same regardless you'll fly a fighter or a tanker.

          They are used to understand if you can fly, and then what type of airplane (or even helicopter) you are better equipped to fly. That's why you need not a few, because to get some tens of pilots you probably need to let enter basic training a lot more.

          Advanced trainers usually exist only for types that are too small, expensive and dangerous to be used for training until the pilot achieves the required skills, usually fighters, fighters-bombers.

          With Harriers, you need a dual-seat Harrier - but I guess this kind of final training is handled by RAF itself, probably using some agreement with USMC as well.

        3. phuzz Silver badge

          Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

          "the Contractor cannot go out and buy more actual military aircraft if it wants more"

          Why not? They're owned by Lockheed...

        4. SkippyBing Silver badge

          Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

          Minor correction, the training contractor actually can go out and buy more aircraft. It's literally part of the contract, the requirement is train X pilots, Y observers, and Z aircrewmen a year to the required standard.

          How they achieve that is up to them, if they can do it with 2 Cessna and a Jetranger crack on.

          To be fair to the contractor, the initial X, Y, and Z figures were based on the front-line strength post the 2010 SDSR. This was increased markedly in the 2015 mini-review which means they're having to expand their training capacity. I have no idea how much extra they get paid for this change in direction.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Auditors bemoan time it takes"

      Never has the term commentard seemed more fitting

  2. Colemanisor

    Why not just outsource the RAF to the USAF?

    1. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

      That'll probably happen shortly after Brexit and the UK becoming the 51st state of the US (if not unlucky enough to become a 'protectorate').

      1. Marketing Hack Silver badge

        @Kabukiwookie We can make you a U.S. unincorporated territory like Puerto Rico. That way you can keep the Union Jack.

        1. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

          Who needs electricity anyway, all their industry and services will have left.

          As a protectorate they can also buy the yummy chlorine chickens, force-grown beef and glyphosate saturated veggjes and fruit at extortion rates, since they'll only be allowed to import their goods through the US.

          Win-Win (for all oligarchs)

          Freedom baby, isn't it grand.

      2. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Protectorate it will be. Would you let the people who voted for brexit vote for your president?

        1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

          @Tom 7: "Protectorate it will be. Would you let the people who voted for brexit vote for your president?"

          You owe me a new keyboard!

    2. Gio Ciampa

      Lockheed-Martin also (part) control our Trident "deterrent" so we may as well go the whole hog...

    3. Pat Att

      It'll happen after Brexit.

    4. Mike Moyle Silver badge

      Welp, there goes that £350 million/week that Brexit's going to save you!

  3. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge

    So I haven't read the NAO report, but how do these numbers compare to when the RAF was training its own pilots? How many years did it take and what was the attrition rate? No point bemoaning something as bad if you don't have a reference point.

    1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      It always used to take a while:

      First they have to learn to fly

      Then they have to learn to fly fast

      Then they have to learn to fly very fast while shooting at people, dropping bombs and generally staying alive.

      but seven years seems a lot.

      And attrition rates? High and variable. Not everyone is suitable as a Top Gun. I remember they had terrible problems with the Harrier OCU - some very, very good pilots just couldn't get the hang of them.

      1. LDS Silver badge

        "Then they have to learn to fly fast"

        Don't forget aerobatics, if you're going to become a fighter/fighter-bomber pilot - and the basic ones you have to learn regardless, I believe. That could help you more to stay alive than flying fast, especially when you're opponent is faster than you anyway.

    2. SkippyBing Silver badge

      When I went through aircrew training last decade it was probably about 5 years from Zero to front-line fast jet, ~3 years for helicopters. That's not to say it was perfect and you could spend a year+ on holdover between flying courses as they hadn't got the output from one course aligned with the input to the next.

      In comparison in the '60s my dad left Dartmouth and a year later was a front-line fast jet Observer.

      As I mention elsewhere, the big problem is the training requirement increased between the contract award and implementation due to the 2015 defence review. My understanding is more aircraft are being procured to deal with this, but added to the usual teething difficulties and it's caused something of a mess.

  4. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge

    QI Twitter popped this out on Tuesday:

    Colin McGregor (Ewan's brother) is a former RAF Tornado pilot - his call sign was Obi Two

  5. Christoph Silver badge

    Isn't it lucky it didn't take seven years to learn to fly Spitfires?

    1. macjules Silver badge

      Bet there were auditors then saying "Why is it taking so long to train pilots?" With the answer, "Perhaps you could ask the Luftwaffe to stop flying over England?"

      1. thames

        That problem was anticipated and allowed for. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was set up in Canada at the start of WWII to train pilots and other air crew for the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Over 130,000 air crew, mainly pilots but also navigators, wireless operators, and others, were trained through this program in Canada during the war. Smaller numbers of aircrew from a number of other countries and colonies were trained through the program as well.

        Canada's aircraft industry produced thousands of training aircraft to equip it.

        At the end of the war Canada wrote off the UK's share of the costs along with the rest of the UK war debt to Canada.

        A similar but much smaller program was run in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.

        Production of arms, vehicles, ships, and aircraft, as well as training training and other activities was coordinated in the Commonwealth, but it's not something you will read much about in pop culture.

        1. RichardB

          "At the end of the war Canada wrote off the UK's share of the costs along with the rest of the UK war debt to Canada."

          Proper team player there.

          Sadly not everyone took the same approach.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Never was so much owed by so many to train so few.

    3. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Well, an awful lot of them didn't get properly trained. To quote an on-line article:

      "in a bid to bolster its used up fighter force, the RAF eventually cut the training time for new pilots from six months to just two weeks. Some recruits even ended up on the front lines with as little as nine hours’ experience in modern fighter planes. "

      Problem with that is that nine hours experience wasn't really enough when up against a battle-hardened veteran in an ME109. The untrained pilots died.

      1. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

        "Problem with that is that nine hours experience wasn't really enough"

        It's not a problem actually. Attrition warfare meant that even though we may have lost 5 pilots for every 1 of Fritz, that we still had the numbers and hardware to win the air war. And at that point in time, that is all that mattered.

        Brave souls. Every one of them.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I expect they all knew the odds and how little experience they had, they still came when called.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Problem with that is that nine hours experience wasn't really enough when up against a battle-hardened veteran in an ME109. The untrained pilots died."

        That was an issue on both sides though.

    4. LDS Silver badge

      It was a bit easier - no supersonic flight or VSTOL, no radar/ECM, no missiles... and more expendable planes. And being the Spitfire the less numerous plane, I believe many less experienced pilots flew Hurricanes...

  6. Rol Silver badge

    It's the future. You know!

    "Mmm... Hi-score on Donkey Kong at your local amusement arcade stood for three years, along with your hi-score on Asteroids, Space Invaders and Defender. Your CV is just glowing with remarkable achievements."

    " arthritis is only in my hips, while my hand eye co-ordination remains impeccable. Only the other day I killed two Death Claws and an Albino Rad-Scorpion with nothing other than a Police Baton and a stack of Med-x"

    "You can stop right there. You have the skills we're looking for here at the RAF, and you've got the job"

    "..Are yo.. Sure! Excellent. Thank you so much"

    "Report to the Wing Commander at 0700 hours next Monday and we'll have you on a console shooting the shit out of Britain's enemies within two months"

    "And there's absolutely no flying or physical requirements for the job?"

    "Hell no. This is the twenty first century for Christ's sake. Why would we spend billions on Jets and pilots, when drones and pensioners can achieve just as much for a fraction of the cost."

    1. LDS Silver badge

      "when drones and pensioners can achieve"

      You mean those who aren't distracted by the on-board camera and don't cut engine power while the drone attempts a go-around?

      1. Rol Silver badge

        Re: "when drones and pensioners can achieve"

        But would a pensioner be distracted by such frippery?

        1. LDS Silver badge

          Re: "when drones and pensioners can achieve"

          Those who like to spend time looking at construction yards?

          1. Rol Silver badge

            Re: "when drones and pensioners can achieve"

            Must admit, that is one of my guilty pleasures on the way to work.

  7. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

    Grob Prefect?

    I have to assume that if I meet someone with this name, he's actually an alien from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.

    Mine's the one with the Hitchhiker's Guide in it, thanks.

  8. G R Goslin

    Once upon a time

    The RAF did it's own training, and did it well. I did my national Service in the RAF, as a Ground Radar Fitter (Rotors). The training course for that was a full nine months of full time training. I learned more in that nine months, than in the five year engineering apprenticeship, the four years of day release for ordinary and Higher National Certificate, primary and secondary full time education, and all the industrial training since then. Nothing beats being trained by people that have done it, lived it and believed in it.

  9. JeevesMkII

    Has there ever, in the entire history of the world...

    been an instance of outsourcing saving money in real terms? I mean actually delivering more productivity per unit money spent. Even if you don't consider the unpleasant but difficult to put a monetary value on side effects of outsourcing my own experience leaves me sceptical that it has ever taken place.In this case, I bet one of the effects is that it's going to screw up pilot retention because they'll all be itching to take up lucrative roles as private sector instructors.

    1. Cederic Bronze badge

      Re: Has there ever, in the entire history of the world...

      Yes. Outsource your non-core activities to specialists.

      E.g. running and maintaining a payroll system. You can do it but others can do it more cheaply and remove that headache for you, and they'll do it no worse than you would.

      Very few companies, for instance, don't outsource their office cleaning.

      1. 's water music Silver badge

        Re: Has there ever, in the entire history of the world...

        Very few companies, for instance, don't outsource their office cleaning.

        And who can put a price on outsourcing the mental stress from treating your employees how most cleaning service providers threat their 'independent contractors'?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Has there ever, in the entire history of the world...

          Should that read "Threaten" rather than threat ?

          I know they don't treat them well.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Has there ever, in the entire history of the world...

        "Very few companies, for instance, don't outsource their office cleaning."

        If you are big enough that you need and have an HR department and a Facilities Management team, why wouldn't you just employ your own cleaners? Employees generally do a better job than contractors and get paid more.

  10. Tim99 Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Not just flying

    After privatised RAF training had been running for a while, I was talking to a (recently retired from active duty as a Weapon Systems Officer) Flt Lt who was the liaison officer for a well known front line RAF station. He was of the opinion that not only was training people to do the flying bit taking too long, with a poor pass rate - He was having to do their "knife and fork course" training, and teaching other basic skills like receiving a salute, discipline and marching (OK the marching bit might not be that important). He said that the whole exercise was a disaster, but that "someone" had made a lot of money out of providing a much worse system than the RAF had when they did all of it in-house.

    OK this was fixed-wing training, not helicopters, but it's the closest icon >>=====>

    1. RPF

      Re: Not just flying

      Sounds about right. Military service should not be civilianised.

  11. RPF

    Non-winged non-master race

    Are the "Non-winged non-master race" bitter much, then? They used to be called "blunts", because that's the end of the wedge they inhabited on contemporary recruitment posters; they loved that so much!

    Prior to out-sourcing, guys had their fast-jet wings within 2.5 years of joining, with around 200 more hours of jet time than now, all in the company of RAF pilots. The examples set made indelible and indispensable impressions on the yoof students. Front-line could be as little as 9 months after that.

    7 years is utterly crackers. Even the youngest joiners would be 26 by the time they get to the squadrons, missing out on years of talent/fearless of extreme youth.

  12. Mark C 2

    It is taking 7 years to train a military a pilot due to lack of available training aircraft and instructors so they get put in a holding position until they can progress to the next stage. Before outsourcing in the '90s it took ~£3 Million and 3 years - depending on aircraft type - to become operational.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme broadcast in March 2019

    BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme broadcast in March 2019:

    "Hundreds of trainee military pilots are not flying because of long delays in the Ministry of Defence's privately contracted training programme.

    The backlog in the Military Flying Training System (MFTS) has doubled over the past year.

    Three hundred and fifty pilots, including helicopter and fast-jet pilots, are waiting to fly because of a shortage of planes and instructors.

    The MoD says there are enough trained air crew for current front-line needs.

    The BBC has been told training which should take three years is taking six or seven, with trainee pilots spending their time doing office jobs rather than flying.

    The multi-billion-pound training contract is run by Ascent, a partnership between Babcock International and Lockheed Martin.

    "It's a huge contract and it's fundamentally failing," said one source.

    "There are so many elements that aren't working. It's not doing justice to the young trainee pilots. They do initial officer training and then everything stops for at least a couple of years."

    [snip... one sample highlight:]

    The sources, who wish to remain anonymous, claim that US trainer jets bought for training at RAF Valley on the island of Anglesey cannot be flown over water, while Hawk T1 jets from the 1970s are being drafted in to fill gaps in training.

    Defence journalist Tim Ripley said the MoD had not invested in enough planes and instructors, despite a boost to spending in the most recent defence review.

    "The 2015 defence review did not make a corresponding increase in the budget available to the MFTS to buy or lease extra planes, extra simulators and employ extra instructors. Therefore there's not enough room on the courses for the pilots," he said.


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme broadcast in March 2019

      That was from the text version, here's a link to the broadcast audio:

      Winging It?

      File on 4

      The UK's Military Flying Training System trains pilots on aircraft from fighter planes to navy helicopters. It takes years for trainees to get their wings. But delays in the system, mean many pilots and crew are 'on hold', waiting months, often years to take to the skies.

      File on 4 investigates the reasons for the hold ups. What's the impact of these delays on the public purse and on our military capability?

      The government's promising a beefed up armed forces, including two new Typhoon squadrons and F35 jets. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson says the UK needs to be ready to use 'hard power' or risk being seen as little more than a paper tiger. But with the MoD's flying training still not at full throttle, will a lack of pilots undermine our military capability?

  14. F111F

    Two Wing Master Race Snark

    Speaking as one of those in the second most important job in any Air Force, Aircraft Maintenance, we are only demi-gods to the flyers, but better than all those "nonners" who don't produce sorties, load bombs, or otherwise inhabit the flightline. The pecking order goes down from there.

  15. G.Y.

    2 or 3 elsewhere

    The Israel air force used to take 2 years. Now it is 3, to add time for a bachelor's degree.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 2 or 3 elsewhere

      They don't have to fly far to see action.

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