Gary Parsons reports from RAF Cranwell on one of the RAF's largest training squadrons
...."To Train Aircrew in Systems Management, Decision Making, Air Leadership and Teamwork to meet the Operational Demands of the Royal Air Force". Such is the mission statement for 55(R) Squadron, perhaps the largest single training unit in the RAF but one of its lesser-known squadrons. Why the latter? It doesn't have the glamour of a front-line fast jet unit, or fly the most modern of aircraft - indeed the scope and breadth of what it achieves is largely unsung. But, it is one of the most important, for the aircrew it delivers to the front line underpins the effectiveness of the modern day Royal Air Force.
55(R) Squadron is part of 3 Flying Training School (FTS), under the umbrella of Training Group Defence Agency (TGDA), itself part of Personnel &Training Command, undertaking all permanent non-pilot flying training for the RAF (except Fighter Controllers on the E-3). Such an extent of responsibility by nature produces a complicated structure, which is not simply explained, but in essence all back-seat aircrew will today most likely either graduate through 55(R) Squadron or later qualify as an instructor.
Currently commanded by Wing Commander Harry Hyslop, a navigator, he is responsible for a staff of around 130, split approximately in the ratio of seventy-thirty service/civilian personnel. The majority of service personnel are Instructors, enabling almost a one-to-one ratio of Instructors to students - such is the demanding nature of the courses that most instructors have only one or two students to supervise at any one time, enabling full attention to be given to the students' needs.
Around 160 'Studes' (as students are affectionately known) pass through 55(R) Squadron each year, coming directly from Initial Officer Training (IOT) and the Officers and Aircrew Training Unit (OACTU), both of which are situated at Cranwell. In essence two grades are trained - Weapon Systems Officers (WSO) who are commissioned officers and Weapon Systems Operators (WSOp) who are non-commissioned.
From 1 Apr 2003, RAF 'Airmen (Aircrew)' became known as 'Non-Commissioned Aircrew'. The new branch of Weapon Systems Operator (WSOp) replaced all four trades (Air Electronics Operator, Air Engineer, Air Signaller and Air Loadmaster) and new graduates are awarded a new 'Rear Crew' brevet. Air Electronics Officers and Navigators are known as Weapon System Officers (WSOs).
55(R) Squadron's primary objective is to train fast-jet WSOs, with a requirement for at least thirty-six to graduate onto the Tornado each year out of about sixty students per year over six courses - the rest either graduate to Air Transport (AT), Air Refuelling (AAR), Maritime or, in a few cases, not quite make the grade. Failures are seen as such and every encouragement and support is given to the prospective student, the aim being to successfully qualify each student at the end of the course - it's an expensive exercise to train aircrew, so full value needs to be achieved.
To achieve its training objectives, the squadron is split into five flights:
HQ Flight is the HQ staff and administration personnel, overseeing the functions of the other four flights in the squadron.
B and C Flights provide all NCO Airmen Aircrew training. After undergoing a twelve-week Airman Aircrew Initial Training Course, the students are awarded the rank of acting sergeant and progress to initial specialist training. The courses are varied and include WSOp Basic; WSOp (EW) Maritime; WSOp (EW) E-3D; WSOp (Acoustic); WSOp (Linguist); Air Engineer and lastly Air Loadmaster.
The tough WSOp Basic Course is divided into two phases, the common phase lasting for twenty-eight weeks, primarily concerned with establishing a firm academic grounding in areas such as mathematics, electronics and communication procedures, together with some survival training, simulator exercises and flying. On completion of the common phase, the students are streamed into one of two specialisations - WSOp (EW) or WSOp (Acoustic (ACO)). The 'wet' course (ACO) for acoustic operators concentrates on underwater detection systems, lasting eighteen weeks. The 'dry' course (EW) for non-acoustic operators is responsible for communications and the operation of electronic warfare, radar and magnetic anomaly detection sensors, lasting twenty-seven weeks including a four-week advanced flying phase. Students doing the EW course will be streamed into either Maritime (Nimrod MR2) or E-3D (Sentry AEW1) depending upon need and preference. Under development is a new NCA course that will stream the students at an earlier stage - this is expected to be implemented early in 2005. Once qualified the successful student progresses straight to the relevant OCU, i.e. 42(R) Squadron for Nimrods at Kinloss or the Sentry Training Flight at Waddington.
Alongside the WSOp course are the Air Engineer (AEng) Course and the Air Loadmaster (ALM) Course. The AEng course is of forty-six weeks duration and is divided into academic, flying and synthetic phases. The students practise elementary systems operations in thirteen exercises flown in the Dominie aircraft where they learn the practical aspects of airmanship and aircraft operations. The ALM course is divided into two phases, the basic phase lasting eight weeks including elementary aircraft systems, the principles of loading and restraint, weight and balance, passenger and cargo handling, survival techniques and international air transport regulations. They also undergo a survival exercise, attend a one-week Specialist First-Aid Course and visit flying stations to experience a taste of operational flying on both fixed and rotary-winged aircraft. Having completed the basic phase, the students are streamed into either fixed or rotary-wing training according to requirements and aptitude. They spend a further three weeks expanding on the basic subjects with consideration to specialisation, covering any additional subjects according to role. Fixed-wing students remain with 55(R) Sqn to complete a five-week flying phase. On completion of initial specialist training, students begin flying under supervision at Lyneham or Brize Norton for fixed-wing aircraft or No 2 FTS at Shawbury for rotary-wing aircraft.
D Flight is the Pilots' section, with a current complement of fourteen, a third of whom are regular and two-thirds reservists. Conversion training to the Dominie is undertaken aside from Nav training, and consists mostly of local circuit-bashing rather than cross-country excursions. As the turnover in pilots is relatively low, this conversion training is usually fitted in around the students' needs.
E Flight, located in the 'Taj Mahal', a pale-blue washed building and the oldest still in use at Cranwell, is primarily concerned with instructing the Basic Dominie Module (BDM), all potential WSOs undertaking basic navigation training using the Dominie. Before joining E Flight, WSO students begin with seventeen hours on the Tutor at Cranwell over a fourteen-week course, using the CFS fleet as required. Then it's onto the Tucano at Linton-on-Ouse and Topcliffe for twenty-nine hours of backseat experience over another fourteen week period - however the 'studes' always remain under 55(R)'s wing.
When the students return to Cranwell, fourteen Instructors are available to take the student through the BDM until the streaming phase - students are streamed for rotary-wing, fast jet or maritime disciplines. It used to be that the higher performers were creamed off for fast jet flying, but the selection process is less selective today as the Air Transport needs have changed with the emphasis now on Special Ops, requiring a good calibre of WSO due to the demands of low-level flying.
The rotary-wing students depart for the Defence Helicopter Flying School at Shawbury while the fast-jet students progress to F Flight. Other students remain with E Flight to undertake specialist Maritime/AT courses as required over a further thirteen week period, flying the Dominie, concentrating on low and medium-level maritime techniques. The first course to incorporate both low-level flying and Maritime duties is set to graduate with two students in January.
In order to introduce the students to the methods of operating in the maritime environment, they fly sixteen sorties - again in the Dominie, which start with an introduction to basic area radar searches. They then learn how to carry out ship homings, Search and Rescue techniques, multiple aircraft operations, emergencies & practice diversions, reactive tasking and multiple re-tasking sorties. The phase culminates in a 'no holds barred' reactive tasking sortie that will test everything that the student has learned throughout the course. As with F Flt, new techniques are demonstrated and practised in the simulator before being carried out in the air.
When required E Flt also train ab-initio air transport navigators and a number of refresher and re-role air transport students. To achieve this there is a strong emphasis towards overseas planning, airways flying and instrument recoveries. Many of the attributes required of an air transport navigator are identical to those of his maritime counterpart, including the requirement to operate worldwide.
F Flight delivers the Fast Jet training element of 55(R) Squadron's role. Twelve Instructors take those students who are selected through a nineteen-week course, flying thirty hours on the Dominie practising radar interpretation and the management of navigation systems. There is no set scoring system for the students, but each sortie is debriefed and performance assessed accordingly. Low-level in the Dominie is particularly challenging for the studes, as no forward view from the consoles and the curtains are also drawn!
The majority of the sorties are high-low-high profiles during which the student has to navigate the aircraft to a low-level start point, fly a low-level route culminating in a target and then recover the aircraft to either a landaway airfield or to base. At all stages of the sortie timing accuracy is vital and students are expected to achieve all timing points to an accuracy of +/- 15 seconds.
The flying exercises increase in complexity as the course progresses and the students gradually learn to use the navigation system in the aircraft and to develop their airmanship to the point where they can manage complex scenarios based on real-life squadron tasks. On completion of this module, the students move to the Nav Training Unit (NTU) in 100 Squadron at Leeming where they receive thirty-five hours instruction on the Hawk, before the successful student joins either 15(R) or 56(R) Squadrons for OCU training on the Tornado.
The Dominie has been part of the RAF aviation scene for nearly forty years, and still has plenty to offer. Designed by de Havilland (before that company became part of the Hawker Siddeley group) as the DH125, it was initially named the 'Jet Dragon' and intended as a jet replacement for the Dove, flying for the first time on 13 August 1962. The RAF ordered 20 of the Series 2 version, powered by two Rolls-Royce/Bristol Siddeley Viper 301 engines rated at 3,000 lb thrust each and fitted with a centrally-mounted periscopic sextant, not to mention the rather more important Decca Type 62 Doppler radar. The first RAF example, XS709, first flew in December 1964 at Hawarden, deliveries commencing early in 1965 with an introduction into service in December 1965 with No 1 ANS at RAF Stradishall, Suffolk. Thirteen examples equipped the East Anglian unit while six went directly to the College of Air Warfare at Manby in Lincolnshire, with one example (XS738) going to the RAE for trials. In 1970 1 ANS was disbanded and the Dominies moved to Finningley to join 6 FTS, which was to last the next twenty-five years. The Dominie has an unusual reputation of outliving all of its former bases - Stradishall, Manby and Finningley have all closed in the intervening forty years. One can't quite see the same happening at Cranwell though - it is the home of the RAF!
The early version of the Dominie had rearward-facing training consoles, a somewhat disorientating experience for the raw students so in 1991 a programme was established to refurbish eleven examples with forward-facing consoles and replace the old Decca radar with a new Thorn Super-Searcher three-axis unit, giving improved picture displays. The bulkier radar resulted in an increase in length of a foot in the nose section, the only external difference between the types - and they removed the sextant, it being irrelevant to modern-day navigation. The upgrade wasn't deemed enough to warrant a T2 designation, so the Dominie remained the T1. Since the eleven upgraded examples have been completed they have nearly all received a new black and white colour scheme, this being considered more visible than the old red and white training one used since introduction into service. The repaint is done as each aircraft undergoes a major service. Among those upgraded was the original 'Dommy', XS709, which is still active today.
It is a very robust airframe and has plenty of life left in it - a fatigue investigation exercise is planned to evaluate extending the life of the aircraft, possibly through to 2012 depending upon the implementation of the Military Flying Training Contract (MFTS). Operating costs, with its 1950s vintage Viper engines, are on the expensive side but it is the ideal airframe for the job, all aircraft now having been converted to the upgraded T1 standard with forward-facing training consoles. Still a capable performer, the Dominie is quite capable of cruising at 25,000 ft and 210 knots airspeed. A Doppler-effect radar is used for training that has a tendency to drift by one or two miles/hour, something that keeps the students on their toes and aids realistic training. Dominie servicing currently undertaken by Babcock, but a new contract in parallel with the introduction of the Beech King Air to 45(R) Squadron in April 2004 with Serco will see this facility transferred.
We were due to fly on a typical BDM sortie to give you a flavour of what is involved, but the morning of 11 November brought mist and low cloud scudding across Southern England. For recovery to Cranwell at least 3,000 ft visibility is required but the forecast was for less than 2,500 all day - so our sortie, Cranwell 91, was sadly scrubbed. Such weather problems play havoc with training schedules, as many sorties were lost that day, and need to be caught up in the next few weeks - not easy as winter and Christmas approaches! For the stude it can be frustrating, but the hours of sortie planning are not wasted as it's all good training regardless. But, next time new flight plans will need to be filed, NOTAMs checked, exercise areas avoided, so it's never just a case of picking up yesterday's plan and running with it.
Only a few plans of 11 November came to fruition, as the weather in Northern Scotland was good (as usual) so Cranwell 87, a night-stop at Kinloss, was able to get airborne early afternoon. The student navigator, Flying Officer Sandy Williams, was nearing the end of her maritime course and was set to intercept some fishing vessels in the Moray Firth - although, as is typical in such training missions, the brief would change once airborne!
A fifteen minute nav brief to her instructors (a daunting task in itself) was most admirably given with numbers flying from every sheet - your scribe's untrained ear struggled a bit, but picked up the transit would be up the East Coast at 22,500 ft, and the diversion airfield was Wick Airport. Everyone seemed happy and it was out to the aeroplane, and a two-day trip to the Scottish Highlands. Sandy hopes to progress to Nimrods once graduated, so Kinloss should be a familiar place for her in the future.
We hope to bring you a behind-the-scenes report on a full training sortie in the not-too-distant future - weather permitting, of course!
Facing the future
With plans to contractorise all the RAF's flying training under the Military Flying Training System (MFTS), the future will present a period of change, both in ethos and equipment. MFTS was originally intended to encompass 55(R) Squadron by 2007, but the latest thinking is that it will more likely to be 2009 before the full impact is felt. There is also expected to be a downturn in WSO requirement as Typhoon enters service and the F3 is replaced, with existing F3 WSOs expected to convert to GR4. The long-term need will remain however, as the Tornado GR4 is scheduled to remain in service until 2020 and the WSOp requirement will only get greater with the introduction of platforms such as ASTOR, training for which will commence in 2004. As the Boss himself says, "Navigation is only 5% of the workload".
Acknowledgements: OC 55(R) Squadron, Flt Lt Richard Parke and the RAF Cranwell website