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 in both the RAF and The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.
Training which should take three years is taking six or seven, with trainee pilots being given extended leave on full-pay or spending some time doing office jobs instead of 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.”
Some of the problems date back to the Strategic Defence Review of 2015 which brought in new plans for enhanced military capacity, and an associated demand for more aircrew. But sources say there’s a lack of planes for these pilots to be trained on, and instructors to train them – with some new aircraft requiring costly modifications before they can fly.
For example the 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 in 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.
Some former officers like Matt Kitson have left the armed forces altogether rather than wait years to complete their training and gain their wings.
“The most frustrating part was to be sent to a squadron with no set date of when you’re starting,” he said.
“It was just ‘oh, it will be in six months’, then that six months became maybe nine months and then that became a year. So with no set date you’ve got a lot of highly motivated guys. It’s frustrating.”
After spending two years in jobs such as being a careers adviser, he gave up his own military career to become a commercial airline pilot.
A current serving Royal Navy pilot in training claims that she has had so much leave in the last nine months that she has been on holiday to Switzerland, Germany, Bali, Thailand, South Africa and more recently the annual Navy ski championship in the French Alps.
“I’m not complaining because they are awesome places to visit and I’m lucky to have the time to go. But I joined the Royal Navy to fly fixed wing aircraft, it is just frustrating. If I’d known it would be like this, I would have applied to join the Army Air Corps instead.”
One post uploaded to her instagram account includes the hashtag ‘Am I Even Employed’ which has had 118 likes.
Conservative MP Dr Julian Lewis, chair of the Commons Defence Committee, said he would write to the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson for an explanation in the light of the findings.
“The idea that somebody might be waiting until their late 20s until they graduate as a fully-fledged fast-jet pilot is clearly ridiculous, unacceptable and will have to be resolved speedily,” he said.
The MoD admitted the number of holding officers is greater than they would expect, but said it was normal for people to be put ‘on hold’ before flying training, and insisted all aircrew fulfilled essential roles to expand their skills in other areas of the job.
“The Military Flying Training System is the biggest transformation of UK military aircrew training in a generation that, when fully complete, will deliver a world-class training system across pilot and aircrew pipelines,” a spokesman added.