The recent retirement of the RCAF’s 419 Squadron, based in Cold Lake, Alberta ended fighter pilot training in Canada.  NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) is the very successful pilot training program that has flown the CT-155 Hawk jet for 24 years, creating baby fighter pilots, teaching them basic fighter pilot skill sets.  Sovereign Fighter-Lead-In-Training (FLIT), which is also called Phase IV in pilot training parlance, has graduated wannabe fighter pilots who were capable, safe, and effective as they moved on to learn to fly the more advanced CF-18 Hornet.

As it turns out, RCAF officials cancelled this program with perfectly capable jets to fly, trained instructors and maintenance personnel available at a time when the air force is desperately short of fighter pilots and with very little access to training programs to refill their ranks.  There are only 42 combat-ready fighter pilots in the RCAF, not enough to sufficiently man the CF-18s to protect our country or support operations abroad.  With 88 F-35s to be delivered in the coming years, and a severe shortage of trained pilots, instead of leveraging existing sovereign training capability, RCAF officials just shot themselves in the foot and cut off their own elite, highly successful fighter pilot training program. The decision they took is now to outsource all of that training out-of-country at enormous additional expense.

The Hawk Life Expectancy Changed

Years ago, when the FLIT program was running hard, training a larger group of pilots each year, the Hawk aircraft were flown at a high rate and the airframe fatigue life was projected to be exhausted by now.  This forecasting prompted RCAF officials to look for alternative programs to continue fighter pilot training.

However, in recent years, the number of students sent through 419 Squadron for fighter pilot training was reduced, and as a fallout, the amount of flying on the Hawk jets reduced also.  This meant far less fatigue on the airplanes and as it turns out, the life expectancy of the Hawk fleet was extended another 10 years.  With 12 remaining flying Hawks, the NFTC system was capable of training anywhere from 12 to 20 fighter pilot students for the next 10 years.  If this is true, and fatigue data was available to RCAF technical experts and leadership, why would someone decide to end this highly efficient and capable pilot training program?  After all, the Canadian fighter pilot training program has produced 3 Canadian Space Agency astronauts, a Virgin Galactic test pilot astronaut, world leading test pilots for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and all major aircraft manufacturers plus the many, many retired fighter pilots who fly for Air Canada, WestJet and all the other Canadian carriers.

But the RCAF gave up on this program. I suspect once a decision was made, the RCAF leadership ignored the changing conditions, convinced everyone that there was no other option and bulldozed ahead.  The RCAF then rushed to retire the Hawk and close 419 Squadron.

5th Gen Marketing

I continue to hear from many military flying training programs how they are focused on 5th Generation (5th Gen) fighter pilot training.  Having been an F-35 test pilot for more than a decade, I have yet to see any of these out-of-country programs revolutionize fighter pilot training as is needed to properly prepare young wannabe fighter pilots for 5th Gen aerial warfare.  Cool looking touchscreen displays, Virtual Reality goggles, new simulator systems are just evolutionary contributions to help teach students new skills, not tools to drive the revolutionary skills needed for 5th Gen fighter pilots.  Not a single person in the RCAF or any other military fighter pilot training program can tell me what unique skills are needed to be a lethal 5th Gen fighter pilot. They have not flown 5th Gen fighters and have not seen what discriminates an older generation (legacy) fighter pilot from a young pilot who goes straight from pilot training into a 5th Gen fighter.  I know that difference and saw it all the time in my F-35 world.  But none of the training programs focus on the skills needed; they teach legacy fighter pilot skills with cooler tools.  So no matter how many times the marketers say it, there is no 5th Gen training available right now.  Knowing this, why did RCAF officials give up on the 4th Gen training system that the Air Force had run for 24 years?

Canadian F-35 Pilot Training

In the coming years, Canadian fighter pilots will need to scale their training to prepare for the F-35 and 5th Gen technologies.  However, that change will not be required for another 5 years or so.  The first 4 Canadian F-35 jets will arrive at Luke Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona in 2026, and 4 more in 2027 to make up the RCAF’s contribution to the training system flown from Luke AFB.  In the beginning, experienced CF-18 fighter pilots will be sent to Luke AFB to learn how to fly the new F-35, learn about 5th Gen and gain experience to join the instructor cadre of the joint US Air Force F-35 training squadrons.  Over time, more Canadian fighter pilots will convert to the F-35 at Luke AFB and will come home to form the Canadian-based F-35 squadrons.

At some point, young men and women will graduate from fighter pilot training and move directly to learn to fly the F-35 without having any previous fighter jet experience.  In Canada, we call them ‘Pipeliners’ which is what I and my classmates were as the first ‘baby CF-18 Hornet pilots’ who went directly from 419 Squadron fighter pilot training to learn the CF-18 Hornet back 40+ years ago.

In the beginning of the RCAF’s F-35 era, Pipeliners will not be sent to fly the new jet right away. As mentioned, the experienced CF-18 pilots will learn to fly the jet first, then later, Pipeliners will be included in the F-35 training system.  The RCAF just ended the sovereign fighter pilot training, in part because it claimed that the NFTC program was not up to date and not able to train pilots for the 5th Gen fighter world.  Except, as mentioned, there will not be a need for legitimate 5th Gen conversion for years to come.

Other Fighter Pilot Training Programs

The United States Air Force (USAF) Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) Program is based in Wichita Falls, Texas.  There, NATO and a handful of Canadian pilots are trained alongside Americans. The irony is that ENJJPT flies 1950’s designed, 1960’s-built Northrup T-38 jet trainers which are from the same era as the retired Canadian CF-5 fighters that the NFTC Hawk program replaced.

For many years, 419 Squadron flew the CF-5 as the FLIT trainer, including in my day.  In the early 90’s, after the RCAF had embarked on an upgrade program for Canadian CF-5s, a host of changing conditions forced the Air Force to retire the entire fleet.  The last 419 Squadron CF-5 FLIT course was in 1995.  For a period of almost 5 years, the CT-114 Tutor (same jet as flown by the Snowbirds) was the only airplane available to teach budding fighter pilots. Less than ideal, the caliber of the Canadian instruction is what carried the students, taught them basic fighter pilot skills, and prepared them to move on to the CF-18.  It must have worked because fighter pilots like Lieutenant General Eric Kenny (RCAF Commander) and Major General Sylvain Menard (head of the Fighter Capability Office) graduated from this program and did pretty well in their flying careers.  In 2000, 419 Squadron was reactivated and the NFTC program began with the Hawk a year later.

Now the RCAF is retiring the Hawks and sending Canadian fighter pilot students to the US to train on the T-38. The USAF T-38s, the trainer version of the F-5, have detuned their engines to preserve engine life and no longer fly at supersonic speeds.  The RCAF has regressed to fly a 1950’s-designed trainer which is less capable than the CF-5 fighter that it retired 30 years ago.

You can’t make this stuff up.

ENJJPT educates students in the very restrictive and authoritative USAF mindset which historically has been less than desired for Canadian pilot training. As someone who flew with the USAF for 23 years of my 40+ year fighter pilot career, including as an F-16 Instructor Pilot and Flight Examiner, I am keenly aware of the limitations of the US flying mindset.

The RCAF has also sought fighter pilot training opportunities with the Italian Leonardo Aerospace program based in Sardinia, Italy, called the International Flight Training School (IFTS). In the wonderful location of Decimomannu Air Base in the south of Sardinia (I flew there with the CF-18 and later as a Eurofighter test pilot), with a new jet trainer called the M-346, the Italians have marketed their program as a 5th Gen training syllabus. A Russian / Italian partnership led to the design of the Yakovlev Design Bureau’s YAK-130 trainer which first flew in 1996 (28 years ago).  The divorce of the Russian / Italian partnership in 2000 led to the development of the M-346 trainer that is flown at IFTS.  The jets look new but have design considerations that date back to the early 90’s.  The reality is that beyond Gucci new buildings and jet trainer aircraft, their program is not much more advanced than the legacy training that NFTC produces.

There are not enough opportunities with the USAF and Leonardo combined, so the RCAF elected to send 2 pilots to train with the Finnish Air Force.  Finland purchased the F-35 but will not have them in country for some time.  The Finns fly a newer version of the F/A-18 than the Canadian CF-18 and have their own legacy-focused fighter pilot training program.  There is no RCAF experience with the Finnish Air Force and sending 2 students to train with them is an experiment.  I spent 5 years with the Finnish Air Force leading the Lockheed Martin F-35 team that won their future fighter competition.  The Finns are diligent, focused and extremely professional.  The Finnish Air Force has flown the Hawk trainer since 1970 and today operate a mix of upgraded Hawks, some less advanced than the ones that the RCAF just retired.

 Cost

Sending students to all of these out of country programs costs a hockey sock full of money.  IFTS in Italy charges upwards of $3M for each of the 2 RCAF students.  ENJJPT costs upwards of $1.5M US which equates to more than $2M Canadian for each of the 6 students. Finland will cost more than $2M for each of the 2 students.

Oh, and for both ENJJPT and IFTS, the RCAF has to send Canadian instructor pilots to augment the instructor cadre.  Imagine the extra costs of moving furniture and household effects, augmenting rent for the pilots and their families in those foreign countries, an out-of-country salary bonus known as the Foreign Service Premium, medical and dental costs for the pilots and their family members plus any special schooling requirements for the families. Over the next many years, these extra costs will amount to a massive sum, far above what Canadian based-NFTC would have cost.

NFTC Costs

The NFTC fighter pilot training program was not free; but and it is a big but, those funds supported a Canadian solution.  Any future Canadian aerospace solution would have kept the funding in country.  When we figure $20M+ each year paid to other nation’s air forces and aerospace companies, how can the Canadian government legitimize the RCAF’s decision when that money could have paid a Canadian aerospace firm to deliver a world class training solution?

Why not adapt and leverage the capability to extend the existing NFTC program? Well, the approach was to bulldoze ahead and be deaf to changing market conditions. Closing NFTC forced the RCAF to look elsewhere for fighter pilot training opportunities.

Why wasn’t there a competition to solicit options from Canadian firms?  Without a formal follow-on program for fighter pilot training, RCAF officials did not have to go through Treasury Board and be forced to hold a competition.  Bureaucrats were able to scrape funds from RCAF Operations and Maintenance to fund the $Millions needed. So if RCAF units are without funding to support their operations or training or to purchase new equipment, it may be because those funds are now spent on paying for fighter pilot training in other countries. In a sense, they sole sourced their desired path forward and shutout Canadian aerospace options.

You don’t have to be a math major to know that this is not a fiscally responsible path. If this were a commercial enterprise, heads would roll.

Canadian industry was shut out.

The bulldozing mindset of the RCAF leadership failed to offer the opportunities to allow Canadian industry to provide solutions. Even today, Canadian industry could purchase those used Hawk aircraft, hire experienced pilots, and continue providing fighter pilot training; yet the government went deaf mute.

Used Jet Market

These Hawk aircraft would have a significant value in the used jet marketplace, worth multi-millions for this advanced version.  Selling used military aircraft is not something new for the Canadian government.  When the CF-5 was retired, 18 were sold to the Botswana Defence Force in 1996.  The venerable Canadian T-33 trainers were also sold to the open market.  I was in charge of the T-33 Avionics Upgrade Program at one point, and I still come across those aircraft at airshows in Canada and the US.  Tops Aces has flown used Alpha Jets on contract to the RCAF and US military for many years.  The US arm of Top Aces flies used Israeli Defence Force F-16s today as Adversaries for the US military.  The RCAF bought used F/A-18 fighters from the Royal Australian Air Force so dealing in the used jet fighter market is not in the distant past. It is impossible to imagine the Canadian government eating the resale value of 12 flyable advanced Hawks (plus the 5 non-flyable spares).  That fleet amounts to multi-millions which is a lot of trade-in value to offset the ‘offshoring’ of fighter pilot training.

Snowbirds

For all the right reasons, those 12 Hawk jets could have solved the Snowbird Tutor problem.  Keeping the aging Tutor fleet alive has been a huge drag on the RCAF.  For many years, fans hoped that the Hawk aircraft could become the replacement airframe.  The Royal Air Force Red Arrows team has flown the Hawk for decades and everyone who has seen their show will attest just how marvelous the Hawk is as an airshow aircraft.  Fatigue life for jets in the main formation remain low while the solo jets are flown much harder.  12 flyable aircraft could easily feed a 6-plane team for years to come.  The reality is that a cash and personnel strapped RCAF would not dedicate funds to support this transformation.  I expect that the end for the Snowbirds is coming soon and while the Hawk-for-Tutor replacement may seem a great deal, the practicality would rule it out.  But it would be fun to think of the possibilities.

Offshore Funding

And why would the RCAF farm out training at $20 million plus per year when funds could have been invested in a Canadian solution?  The RCAF is freely giving away millions to other nations. Think of the uproar about the cost of the F-35; or the recent outrage around the acquisition of a CP-140 Aurora replacement. Back in 2015, one of the key reasons that the Liberal government tried to cancel the F-35 purchase was because of cost, especially since the money would be going to an American company.

In the CP-140 case, Bombardier marketed a Canadian indigenous aircraft to compete against the Boeing P-8 Poseidon.  This offer gained massive political, public and media support because it would have been a huge boost for the Canadian aerospace industry.  For both programs, the funds are going out of country and Canadian aerospace firms lost out.

As the saying goes, the RCAF just ‘Gave Away the Farm’.

What’s even more ironic is that this outsourcing will continue for far longer than forecasted.  As every Canadian has witnessed, military procurement programs never finish on time (or on budget).  The Future FLIT program will most certainly not select a winner on the timeline planned and the winner will certainly not implement any solution on the projected timeline.  So whatever funds are being sent out of country will continue for many years to come.  And all that time, the funding could have been dedicated to a Canadian aerospace solution.

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

The RCAF has farmed out training.  There are 42 combat-ready fighter pilots, and 88 F-35 cockpits to fill.  It is not correct to plan 1 for 1, pilot per jet, however using this as a base calculation for pilot manning is not far off.  If there are 6 pilots sent to the USAF, 2 to IFTS in Italy, 2 in Finland (for a trial), that makes 10 fighter pilots trained per year.  Assume no RCAF fighter pilot attrition with every serving combat-ready pilot staving off the chance to fly for Air Canada or WestJet or pursue any other career aspiration beyond flying.  10 per year to make up the 40+ pilots that are needed.  That means 4+ years to train enough pilots with this present construct.

But the RCAF had a training pipeline at 419 Squadron that was capable of producing 12-20 fighter pilots each year for another 10 years. With the present plan, there simply isn’t the throughput to train enough bodies to make up the shortfall. Running parallel programs to train 10 out of country and 12 at 419 Squadron would have been better math.  There is an issue that 410 Squadron which does CF-18 conversion training could not take 20+ students per year but the slow training mill now implemented certainly does not plan for success.

Recall that retention is a very serious issue in the Canadian Armed Forces and certainly within the fighter community.  The opportunities to move over to the airlines, make very good salaries, live very stable lives in major metropolitan centers is a huge draw for the very talented fighter pilot community.  So take those 10 pilots to be trained each year, add attrition and the math fails badly.

Remember that these pilots graduate in time to send to training on the CF-18 and later F-35. In the beginning, those young fighter pilots barely know anything about their new profession.  As we remind everyone often:

“You know how long it takes to make a 10-year fighter pilot?…10 years.” 

These FLIT graduates are just starting their careers and will take even more years to become fully trained and combat-ready to fly NORAD or NATO missions.

Ignominy

Did the Hawks just disappear? Well no…Worse.

These jets were flown to the civilian airport in Collingwood, Ontario near where I live.  12 in all, they will remain at the Collingwood airport for the next while.  From there, they will be towed at walking speeds along 40 kilometers of sideroads to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden. With a tractor pulling these flyable Hawk fighter trainers, they will arrive at CFB Borden to become maintenance trainers for future RCAF aircraft technicians.

Wow! Don’t we all wish we could work on multi-million-dollar airplanes?

By the way, to support these jets being towed, the RCAF needs extra tires and brakes in case the existing wheels wear down during the slow 40-kilometer trek. With no equipment of their own, the RCAF has to borrow tow bars to hook on to the front of the aircraft and link them to the tractors (called mules in aircraft parlance) for the slow death march to CFB Borden. Oh, and the RCAF also needs YouTube videos to show the technicians how to change those wheels and brakes since no one has any experience on how to repair or fix these Hawk aircraft.

There are 5 non-flyable Hawk aircraft which could have been used for maintenance training of the RCAF’s technicians.  However, officials elected to use the 12 flyable Hawks instead of the spare non-airworthy aircraft.  It is hard to imagine the logic that led to this decision.  How embarrassing for the RCAF to drag these fighters (at a walking pace since they will be towed by a tractor) all that way to CFB Borden to never fly again.

Bottom Line

Sovereign training is sacred to Canada with roots in the Commonwealth Air Training Plan of World War II and it has functioned amazingly well through NFTC’s 24-year history. Canadian industry offered options but were stonewalled while the RCAF sent more funding to offshore than an indigenous capability would have costed.

Legitimate 5th Gen fighter pilot training is 5+ years away. So why close down a training system which produces world-class fighter pilots and then send students to foreign training systems that at best are at par?

Today, there are 42 RCAF combat-ready fighter pilots protecting Canada’s sovereignty and defending Canadian interests abroad.  In desperate need to create new fighter pilots, the RCAF just shut down a system that was capable of producing anywhere from 12 to 20 young fighter pilots annually for the next 10 years.

How to Turn this Around

Be transparent and explain to Canadians why the RCAF cannot produce enough fighter pilots, yet it shut down a training pipeline that had functioned at an elite level for 24 years and potentially had another 10-years ahead of it. Let the Air Force answer to the politicians, media and public, trying to justify why they were fiscally irresponsible in a period where the military is so desperately short of funding?

The RCAF is very small by comparison to other air forces.  Agility and adaptability are trademarks of the Canadian Air Force.  Open up requests for training options to Canadian industry immediately and resurrect sovereign pilot training.  There are Canadian solutions available that will provide world class fighter pilot training.

As I say often about the Canadian military…stop the self-inflicted wounds.