Monday, 4 February 2013

Pilot training: A case of "penny wise" and "pound foolish"?

Canada decision to put the penny out of everyone's misery today just so happened to COINcide (see what I did there) with a press release from the RCAF stating that pilot training hours will now be split favouring more time in the simulator.

Now, this seems like a reasonable decision.  Flight simulator hours are much cheaper than actual aircraft flight hours.  To me this seems more like a case of "penny wise and pound foolish".  Sure, simulators don't require fuel or hours of maintenance between flights, and are a great way for pilots to practice procedures and keep their skills sharp without all the usual cost involved.

Super Hornet simulator.  Just as good as the "real thing"?
The trouble is, flight simulator hours are not a substitute for actual flight hours.  There is a huge difference between knowing what buttons to push in a simulated environment, and pushing those same buttons pulling 9g's and feeling your eyeballs getting pulled back into the back of your skull.  There is also the proverbial "seat of the pants" feeling that comes only with experience doing the real thing.  It's the same way a race car driver knows his tires are about to lose grip.  Sometimes you just have to feel what's happening rather than depending on all those blinking lights and gauges.

What happens when you cut pilot training.
Consider this.  In 2006, a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter crashed in Nova Scotia.  Conditions were well within the Cormorants design specs and there was no hardware malfunction.  The crash was fount to have been caused by pilot error.  That pilot error was brought about by flight hours being cut due to poor aircraft availability.

So which is the better bargain?  Saving a few dollars by restricting flight time?  Or saving multi-million dollar aircraft and the aircrews' lives by allowing them to train and practice in the real thing?

If the RCAF bought an aircraft that was so expensive to maintain and fly that is has to cut flying hours, then it simply bought the wrong aircraft.  I'd rather see pilots getting real flight time by flying Defence Ministers from fishing trips than sitting at glorified XBox.  The F-35 would be an example of an aircraft too expensive to actually fly, along with also being a case of "in for a penny, in for a pound".


  1. Talking about cost and efficiency, Since you are interested in The Gripen NG there is a SAAB seminar at Aero India 2013 you might want to watch. It tells you about the Project and the future of the project.

    An interesting point is the difference in doctrine between Sweden and the US on strike/bombing missions. The US will use F-35 for first day strike missions. While Sweden and France invested in the Neuron project for the future. A UAV designed for strike missions with Lo aka stealth. A fighter will escort the UAV unit (4 aircraft) and work as the command unit, capable of reprogramming the flight path in real time.
    Which means no pilot will have to be exposed to any SAM, or interceptor fighters. The cost for each UAV is as of now estimated at 1/3 of the cost of one Gripen NG.
    This is the future vision for the French and Swedish air forces. In this case the F-35 does not fill any needed role.


    1. Thanks for the comment and the link!

      As I have stated in a previous post, a stealthy UCAV makes much more sense than a stealthy manned fighter. If a mission is so dangerous that a stealthy aircraft is needed, then why send a manned aircraft in the first place?

      UCAV's are stealthier, cheaper, and more expendable than a manned fighter. They also have a much faster development time and will likely see much more advancement over the next 30 years than any manned fighter.

      A joint group of manned fighters escorting a larger number of UCAVs dedicated to a strike role sounds like the most practical solution.

    2. UCAV has proven them self over Afghanistan and other areas, the drone that crashed in the border region of Iran could have easily been a US pilot if they had not invested in the capability. Another example is the use of unmanned light helicopters in Afghanistan to ferry equipment to isolated bases.

      I believe the problem is that a traditional airforce has a slight problem envisioning the full potential of these systems. As you said there is a lot of development in this area. There is even potential for Canadian industry to develop their own system with Canadian requirements in mind.

      Another problem with peoples mindset is they tend to evaluate aircraft in a 1 vs 1 scenario in their mind. While in fact it is a numbers game. 1 vs 1 could easily be 1 vs 2 if the cost is right. Instead of 65 or 77 fighters, the airforce could have 120 or more, for less than half the total cost. Opening up the budget for upgrades and increased flight training. And buying new systems with other capabilities in the near future.

      Warning examples are Spain and Austria, who cant afford to fly their EF fleet. There has even been discussion about selling parts of the fleet to balance the budget.

      The Austrian problem was a warning bell for neighbour country Switzerland when picking a new aircraft.

    3. I think part of the resistance to UAVs will come from the entrenched flight crew currently serving. It's understandable that people don't like the idea of their job being taken over by a robot, but the fact of the matter is, that is the future of warfare.

      A good example is the CP-140 Aurora. It takes a crew of 12, including flight engineers and navigators, two positions more or less rendered obsolete by modern navigation and engine management computers.

      Of course, these high ranking flight crew are the ones with the most influence when it comes time to decide what the RCAF's procurement needs are. It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to figure that current flight crew would much prefer an aircraft that keeps them flying (and earning flight pay). UAVs going to be a tough sell to these people, despite acting a "force multiplier".

  2. Well, automated civilian systems usually show that eliminating the human factor has a huge impact on safety in the long run.

    There are two ways to go, full automatic programmed behavior, or remote control. Technology might not be mature for all functions at this time but quite a few systems are ready.

    Border patrols and an early warning system is an example that could be implicated in a short time frame. Then there is the US UCAV fleet that has made impressive progress in the last decade. A program that pretty much did not exist on a large scale prior to 2001. The US now has a fleet of some 500 drones or more in total. The cost of one unit is pocket money for the US DoD.

    And yet when people in general discuss the airforce, they dont even realize that there is a whole fleet of them, and that they are in fact vital in Afghanistan.

    Israel is another pioneer, a small nation with limited budget that need a cost effective way of covering large areas with a 24/7 surveillance network. Sounds familiar?

    Yes patrol aircraft, patrolling in the same way as in the 50s seems to be a very ineffective way to conduct surveillance. Instead the crew could be stationary, and drones could fly 24/7 in shifts.

    1. You make a great point about how UCAVs have come so far in a very short period of time.

      I think when "History of Aviation" books come out years from now, the 2000-2020 time period won't be remembered for "5th generation" jets as much as it will be remembered for as the rise of the drones.

    2. "Rise of the drones" is a catchy news article title. I watched some seminars recently, pretty much every nation with a aerospace industry have some UAV or UCAV program.
      Its cheap, its effective, and it already works. If they fail you can program them to shut down and deploy a chute.
      In theory its 100% reusable.

      The only real problem is, does the political establishment and military leadership consider the possibility and leave enough room in the the budget?

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Sorry. This post appeared a little spammy to me.