Chivenor Changes

Mike Pooler looks at the major changes recently introduced in the RAF’s fast jet training syllabus, and how they effect RAF Chivenor in particular.

THESE FIRST FEW years of the decade are seeing some major changes at one of the RAF’s most popular stations. Situated on the banks of the Taw/Torridge estuary in North Devon, near to the town of Barnstaple, Chivenor has been in the business of training pilots for the ‘fast jet’ squadrons since 1951 when 229 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) was established there. In those days, the emphasis was on the fighter pilot side of training using Vampire, Meteor and Sabre aircraft. The long association with the Hunter aircraft began in 1955, and the training objectives expanded to cater for the need to provide pilots for the fast jet bombers and recce aircraft, principally the Phantom, Buccaneer and Harrier, which formed the backbone of the ground attack force in the 1970s.

For reasons which have largely been forgotten, but had precious little to do with training effectiveness, the training task was transferred to Brawdy in what was then Pembrokeshire (now Dyfed), and in 1974 Chivenor closed as a fixed wing unit — just ‘A’ Flight of 22 Sqn stayed with its Whirlwind and then Wessex search and rescue helicopters. Coinciding with the move to Wales, the unit was renamed the Tactical Weapons Unit (TWU) comprising three squadrons; 63, 79 and 234. These continued using the Hunter until 1978/79 when they converted to the BAe Hawk.

At about this time it was recognised that there was going to be an increase in the pilot training task which was beyond the resources available at one station. A temporary unit was established at Lossiemouth, and then in August 1980 Chivenor was reopened as No 2 TWU. The first squadron to move in was 63 Sqn from Brawdy, now completely converted to the Hawk aircraft; 151 Sqn was established shortly afterwards.

Despite these changes to name, aircraft, and location, the pattern of fast jet pilot training had remained fairly constant. After basic flying on the Jet Provost and more recently the Tucano, those students assessed as suitable for the fast jet roles moved to No 4 Flying Training School (4 FTS) at Valley in Anglesey for the advanced flying training course. This school initially used Gnat and Hunter aircraft but has been equipped with the Hawk since the late 1970s; the course was designed to build on the ‘pure’ flying skills learnt at Basic Flying Training School (BFTS), but on the higher performance aircraft.

The successful students graduated from 4 FTS with their ‘wings’ and proceeded to the TWU either at Brawdy or Chivenor. As its name implies, the aim of the TWU course was to introduce tactical flying and the use of weapons. In just over 50 hours flying, the student was introduced to tactical formation flying, more demanding low flying, 1 v 1 and 2 v 1 combat, air defence techniques, simulated attack profiles against surface targets, and low-level fighter evasion, together with the delivery of bombs in level and dive attacks, and the use of the gun against both air and surface targets.

Over the years there have been some relatively minor amendments to the syllabus to cater for the changing requirements of the OCUs, but the overall philosophy has remained constant. The TWUs were generally content with the standard of the student arriving from 4 FTS, and the OCUs were similarly happy with the product of the TWUs. The announcement of a plan for the restructuring of the Advanced Flying Training School (AFTS)/TWU training package consequently came as something of a surprise.

The plan was a result of the Options for Change policy, which envisaged a reduction in the numbers of front line aircrew and therefore in the training task. Against this background there seemed no justification for the retention of two TWUs and Brawdy was consequently closed in late August 1992. It was considered that further savings could be achieved if the separate AFTS and TWU courses were merged, with a reduction in the number of flying hours on the new course compared to the sum of the two separate courses. In addition, there was a desire to cut down any unnecessary turbulence for students in having to move between units and so the new course was to be run in its entirely at both Valley and Chivenor.

The main savings would be made in the formation and low-level phases of the course, where it is true to say there had been some duplication and overlap in the AFTS and TWU syllabi. Minor savings could also be achieved by removing the need to fly some orientation sorties on change of unit, and by consolidation of, for example, instrument and night flying sorties. On the old scheme the student flew, ideally, for 75 hours at Valley and 52 hours at the TWU, a total of 127 hours — the new course provides the student with 100 hours, a reduction of just over 20%. The 100 hours is split approximately as 65 hours equivalent to the old Valley course and lasting 14 weeks, and 35 hours tactical and weapons flying spread over 13 weeks. In addition to these student flying hours there are ‘support’ flying hours including, for example, the need for an instructor to fly in another aircraft to make up a formation, or an adversary in combat. This amounted to a further 36 hours per student on the old scheme and totals 27 hours per student on the new course.

In addition though, there has been a subtle change in the course aims. On the old system the TWU set out to produce pilots competent to lead a pair of aircraft. The new course aims to produce a pilot ‘with the necessary flying, airmanship and tactical skills to operate as a number 2’. Thus leadership skills are no longer assessed, and it is accepted that the achieved levels of airmanship and tactical awareness may reflect the reduction in flying hours. Because of the reduction in experience, some of the more advanced and demanding sorties of the old TWU syllabus have been removed. On the more positive side, the new course is much better integrated than the separate courses and the student is exposed to tactical flying and the more operational aspects of military flying at an earlier stage of training.

The first courses of me new system started at Valley in September 1992 and at Chivenor in October 1992, and as we went to press both were still under way. It is early days, and it is clearly not yet possible to make any realistic evaluation. The syllabus is under continual review and this will continue as experience is gained. Perhaps the only proper judgement can be made by the OCUs in due course, once they have experienced the ‘product’.

The student arrives at Chivenor from BFTS having down about 100 hours on the Tucano and in many cases some hours on the Bulldog at a University Air Squadron. Whereas previously the Chivenor ground school was fairly brief, there is now the additional task of converting the pilot onto the Hawk, The scope of the ground school has therefore had to expand to cover the subjects of aerodynamics, aircraft performance, aviation medicine, avionics, flight instruments, combat survival, meteorology, navigation, and Hawk technical — previously taught at Valley. Much of the teaching material has of course been imported from Valley but there has been an increase in ground school instructors, and there are plans to increase the size of the ground school buildings. The students fly a total of 27 simulator exercises during the course, eight of which are completed before any flying is done and an additional Hawk simulator has been acquired from Brawdy to cater for this increased requirement.

The flying part of the course starts with conversion to the Hawk, and the student should go solo after 5½ hours — a short, 30-minute, flight. This is followed by more general handling sorties, instrument flying, medium and low-level formation flying, high and low-level navigation exercises, and night flying before proceeding to the more tactical exercises. Four ‘cine’ sorties give practise at using the gun- sight to track an airborne target, manoeuvring predictably, and lay the ground work for the later air combat and air-to-air gunnery exercises. Air combat starts with a 1 v 1 scenario and with the opponent initially being fairly ‘user friendly’. The 2 v 1 exercises ore taught using both missile (AIM-9L) and gun techniques and practise intercepts, using ground-based radar controllers, are introduced — the GCI site at RAF Portreath in Cornwall providing the service.

Weapons training starts with three sorties of strafe using the Hawk’s 30mm Aden cannon in a 10° dive attack on Pembrey range. This is followed by three sorties of 10° dive bombing with the 3kg practice bomb and then three sorties doing both strafe and bombing in the same 30-minute range slot. The final air-to- ground exercise is level bombing from a height of 100ft (30m) above the target.

Air-to-air gunnery is carried out over the Bristol Channel in Hartland range to the west and north of Lundy Island. The target is a banner towed in a circular pattern by another Hawk. Each firing aircraft has rounds tipped with a different coloured paint so that more than one aircraft can fire against the same target and the hits can be allocated to individuals once the banner has been dropped back on the airfield.

In many ways the simulated attack profile sorties are the climax of the course and are generally regarded as the most demanding exercises. The aim is to get a pair of aircraft at low level to a ground target, such as a bridge, and simulate the release of weapons in either a dive or level bombing attack. The latter sorties are complicated by the presence of a fighter aircraft which attempts to prevent the pair from reaching the target and so forcing the students into using evasion tactics to negate the threat. The final sortie also involves the release of a practice bomb onto Pembrey range in a level ‘first run attack’ before flying on to the simulated attacks.

As might be expected, there is currently some turmoil and change in the numbers and qualifications of instructors on the squadrons.

Valley previously had no need for qualified weapons instructors (QWI) and so some had to be posted in from either Brawdy or Chivenor. Conversely, Chivenor had too few qualified flying instructors (QFI) and so some had to be posted in from Valley. Because much of the flying at the TWUs had required neither QFIs or QWIs specifically, there was a third category of instructor, the tactics instructor (TI), who was able to teach all the non-specialist exercises such as low-level navigation and combat. The TI did not exist at Valley, largely because the final old course had not finished, and so both courses were being run simultaneously. There were some 21 instructors per squadron, but this is being reduced, and there will be 16 once the change over to the new course is complete. It would clearly be advantageous if all of the instructors could teach the first part of the course for which a QFI is necessary and so it seems likely that in future all instructors will have to complete the QFI course as well as being TIs. Perhaps, eventually, the arrangement which is common in the USA and much of Europe will be adopted, ie: the instructor pilot will teach the whole of the syllabus. There are already one or two ‘dual qualified’, QFI/QWI instructors.

The TWUs had provided the link between the training schools and the operational squadrons, and as such were never likely to sit comfortably in any group or command; they were always different from the rest of both Support Command and Strike Command. Largely because of their historical roots as 229 OCU, training fighter pilots, they had come under the command of 11 Group of Strike Command. The change to the nature of the course has meant that this no longer seemed the best ‘home’ and Chivenor is now part of Support Command, and has been renamed as 7 FTS. In September 1992, 63 and 151 Sqns were renumbered as 19 (R) and 92 (R) Sqns, so the links with ‘Fighter Command’ have not been entirely lost.

This change of squadron numbers and the merging with Valley has resulted in a rather colourful aircraft line-up. Because of the need for T1A aircraft at Valley to carry out the weapons part of the syllabus there has been a transfer of aircraft between units, with some T1s coming to Chivenor. The line therefore sports air defence grey aircraft with either 19 or 92 tails, red, white and blue ‘training colours’, plus the two all-black display aircraft.

The mix of T1 and T1A aircraft causes some difficulty with programming — there are some sorties for which the weapons facility of the T1 a is essential. There are, in fact, a few examples of a third ‘mark’ of aircraft (T.1W’) which has the gun-sight and normal weapons capability, but lacks the ability to operate with the Sidewinder AIM-9L missile.

It is just about inevitable that a major change such as this will experience teething troubles and throw up a few challenges particularly as neither Valley nor Chivenor is ideally situated or suited to run the composite course.

Chivenor is a relatively small airfield with one 6,000ft (1,800m) runway suitable for the Hawk and with no relief landing ground nearby. There is therefore a potential problem with mixing students at different stages of training — those starting the course will need to make heavy use of the visual circuit, while the more advanced students will wish to join in formation for a run and break, or perhaps cope with some simulated emergency. These two requirements are to a large extent incompatible and there will need to be o fairly tight programming discipline to avoid any conflict. It has been proposed that the early training stages could be carried out at the lightly utilised airfield at St Mawgan, some 70 miles (112km) away, by detaching a few aircraft either on a daily basis or for a few days — this option is being seriously considered. The problem in the Chivenor circuit has not proved too serious for the first course as there were only four students, but with a projected course size of eight, and with four courses, each at a different stage of training running simultaneously, some thought and care will be needed. In addition to the main courses, Chivenor is also tasked with running a number of other courses. Refresher courses are designed for experienced pilots returning to flying duties after a ground tour, QWI courses are necessary to provide the weapons instructors for both Valley and Chivenor, and UK Orientation Courses are run to familiarise exchange pilots from other countries with the airspace and procedures of the UK. At times the airfield could become quite busy!

The perceived problems at Valley are different and are largely associated with location and local airspace. With airways to the north and south, and the danger areas in Cardigan Bay, there is some constraint on the available upper airspace needed both for conversion training, and for some of the tactical flying, particularly air combat.

The early low-level tactical formation sorties need to be carried out over relatively flat terrain and whereas Chivenor has such terrain locally, the nearest low-flying area to Valley is over Snowdonia, which is clearly unsuitable. It seems likely that the exercises will have to carried out further south in Wales leading to unwonted transit flying.

Perhaps more serious is the lack of a local air-to-ground weapons range. Both Chivenor, and Brawdy in its time, made use of the facilities at Pembrey range near Lianelli in south Wales — indeed, in many respects, the range was set up in response to the needs of these units. Pembrey is only some seven minutes’ flying time across the Bristol Channel from Chivenor and this relatively short transit over the sea provides enough time for the student to trim out the aircraft and set up the weapons system. Furthermore, the closeness ensures that the aircraft can remain on the range for 30 minutes, which is long enough to complete the course exercises, and still return to Chivenor with adequate fuel reserves — just about an ideal situation. Valley is less ideally placed, being some 100 miles (160km) distant. It would be impractical to fly from Valley to Pembrey and return, and spend sufficient time on the range. As a consequence the current plan is to detach aircraft, instructors and students to Chivenor for the duration of the weapons phases. This extra flying from Chivenor will of course add to the already strained resources of the base.

Although the training of pilots has always been the main task of me TWU and now of 7 FTS, since the introduction of the Hawk the training of navigators has also been undertaken. This task was initially conceived as a no, or low-cost exercise when spare seats became available in the Hawk — much of the previous Hunter course used the single seat marks. The intention was for navigators to spend any available time that they had between finishing their course at Finningley and starting the OCU at the TWU, flying on whatever sorties were available in order to increase their appreciation of tactical flying and high performance aircraft. Until then, navigators had moved from the Dominie and Jet Provost of the School of Navigation directly to the Phantom and Buccaneer OCUs — quite a dramatic change of environment. The TWU flying gradually became slightly more formalised over the years and a few hours were allocated specifically for navigator training. The review of the pattern of navigator training, and the introduction of the Hawk at Finningley, probably spell the end of the navigator training task at Chivenor. However, the instigation of the new Finningley course is some way ahead and it seems likely that navigators will continue to benefit from their Chivenor flying for some months yet.

The changes to the syllabus, to the aircraft, and to the instructor complement are matched by changes to the look of the station. In many ways the station is more reminiscent of a building site than an airfield, as there is a £12 million building project under way. This includes the construction of new engineering facilities, new squadron buildings (long overdue), an extension to the ground school, working accommodation for the detachments from Valley, and an additional 45-room wing on the Officers’ Mess.

Without doubt all these changes are proving something of a challenge, but a challenge which the personnel seem more than ready to tackle. There is on air of determination that the new training scheme will be made to work and the potential problems will be overcome; there will no doubt be some ‘fine tuning’ as experience is gained. Whether the continued existence of both Chivenor and Valley as advanced flying training units can be justified is currently being reviewed, but Chivenor seems well set to continue its highly regarded role of preparing pilots and navigators for the front line tor the foreseeable future.

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