The Australian Defence Force’s ambitious AIR 5428 Phase 1 Pilot Training System (PTS) has been a long time in its development to meet its long-term goals of training a new generation of pilots for all branches of the ADF. But things appear to be slowly getting back on track.
Prior to AIR 5428, the ADF’s pilot training system was already highly-regarded, but was very-much an ‘analogue’ system geared towards previous generations of aircraft. Indeed, every aircraft in the ADF’s inventory except Army’s Black Hawk helicopter and the RAAF’s classic Hornet – both of which will retire in 2021 – has been replaced with new generation systems since the project commenced.
The primary catalyst for AIR 5428 was the RAAF’s commitment to the multi-national Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. Operating the F-35 and other modern capabilities such as the F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, P-8A Poseidon, MH-60R Romeo, and various unmanned capabilities meant the next generation of ADF pilots would be required to not only fly the aircraft, but to be far more involved in ‘flying the mission’ in a networked environment.
While the sensors and the fusion of their data provides the F-35 pilot with far greater situational-awareness than previous generations of combat aircraft, there is a much greater volume of data coming in faster and in much higher fidelity than before. Therefore, pilots will be required to process more information in order to make more tactical decisions faster.
Thus, the project’s drawn-out solicitation process introduced down-stream challenges which were largely driven by these technological advances, and the cultural changes necessary to move towards what is becoming an increasingly virtual training environment.
A Request for Tender (RFT) for Project AIR 5428 PTS was released in August 2013 and closed in March 2014. The RFT called for a new generation aircraft capable of conducting undergraduate basic and advanced pilot courses ahead of post-graduate training conducted by RAAF lead-in fighter (LIF) and type-specific operational conversion units, and the training of Qualified Flying Instructors (QFIs).
The PTS was also to provide initial flight training for candidate pilots for the joint Army/Navy Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS) that was then being established under Project AIR 9000 Phase 7.
More than just a new training aircraft, the AIR 5428 PTS requirement called for a system comprising new training facilities, synthetic training devices, courseware, and an integrated training syllabus that would tie all of the project elements together.
The PTS replaced the BAE Systems Australia-run Basic Flying Training System (BFTS) operating the PAC CT-4B basic trainer at Tamworth, and the Pilatus PC-9/A advanced trainer operated by Central Flying School (CFS) at RAAF East Sale, and by 2 Flying Training School (2FTS) at RAAF Pearce.
The RAAF’s Roulettes aerobatic team operated by CFS also operates the new aircraft, as does the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) at RAAF Edinburgh, while it was planned to assess the PC-21 for its suitability to operate in the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) training role with 4SQN at RAAF Williamtown.
Two responses to the AIR 5428 PTS RFT were received – one from the ‘Team 21’ partnership of Lockheed Martin Australia, Pilatus, and Hawker Pacific with the Pilatus PC-21, and a teaming of BAE Systems Australia, Beechcraft, and CAE with the Beechcraft T-6C. The Team 21 bid was partially informed by the system operated by the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) Basic Wings Course (BWC) at RAAF Pearce.
It is now history that Team 21 was selected as the successful tender for the PTS. The A$1.6 billion project has delivered 49 Pilatus PC-21s, seven flight training devices and other synthetic training devices, new facilities with modern learning environments, updated courseware, and an initial seven years of support.
Under the contract, 42 aircraft were delivered to conduct basic flying training and QFI training by CFS at East Sale and advanced flying training with 2FTS at Pearce. The remaining seven PC-21s are operated by the 4SQN JTAC training unit at Williamtown, and by ARDU at Edinburgh.
Some $400 million was also assigned to develop the new Air Academy at East Sale and at Pearce, with new hangars, an expanded ramp, flight line shelters, ground support equipment garages, modern classroom and learning facilities, and student accommodation.
The RAAF’s first PC-21 made its maiden flight in July 2016 around the time the first RAAF QFIs commenced training on the type with Pilatus in Switzerland, and the first two aircraft were ferried to Australia in February and March 2017.
Importantly, while PTS will deliver training to ab-initio pilot candidates, it was not designed to address the entire range of RAAF Office Aviation roles. To this end, the ADF recently released a Request for Information (RFI) to industry in September 2020 for its Project AIR 5428 Phase 3 Air Mission Training System (AMTS) requirement.
AIR 5428 Phase 3 will be required to train RAAF mission aircrew and mission controller candidates, including air battle managers, air mobility officers, air traffic controllers, electronic warfare officers, maritime patrol and response officers, operations officers, airborne electronics analysts, and weapons system officers.
At a formal welcome for the type into service in August 2017, then Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne said: “The new pilot training system is a significant leap forward and will train more of our people faster, and to a higher standard than our current system. This will provide the Australian Defence Force with a tailored pilot training system to meet the needs of our pilots for the next 30 years.”
Deliveries continued over the next two years, with the 49th and final aircraft being accepted into service in December 2019 at East Sale by Head of Air Force Capability, AVM Cath Roberts, and Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel and local member for Gippsland, Darren Chester.
“Undergraduate pilots at RAAF East Sale and Pearce will now be able to use the best equipment along with a new tailored Pilot Training System, which will meet their needs and those of future recruits,” Mr Chester said at the acceptance ceremony. “The new system can train more people faster and to a higher standard, and will ensure undergraduate pilots develop the necessary skills before moving to more advanced military aircraft.”
The final PC-21’s arrival and acceptance coincided with the conclusion of the final PC-9/A Advanced Pilots Training ‘Wings’ course at 2FTS at RAAF Pearce near Perth. The first pilot’s course to graduate and get their ‘Wings’ on the PC-21 at 2FTS Pearce was No 258 Advanced Pilots Course in July 2020.
There were some early concerns expressed that the PC-21 was too advanced for ab-initio pilots who had previously been required to conduct their basic flying training on the much more benign CT-4.
“It’s a high-performance aircraft in terms of a trainer,” AVM Roberts agreed in a recent interview with ADBR. “But it can actually be flown relatively easily because of some of the systems that have been incorporated into the aircraft. Yes, it can climb fast and it can go fast and it can do 8G or -4G, which is better than most aerobatic aircraft, but I would say that the systems in the aircraft have been tuned well for basic flying training, so that it makes it very effective.”
CASG’s First Assistant Secretary Rotary, Aerospace and Surveillance Systems, Shane Fairweather – a former RAAF CH-47C and C-130H pilot and PC-9 QFI – agrees. “The engine power can be adjusted for the circuit work – it can be ‘dumbed down’ and then brought up gradually,” he said.
“I was on the PC-9 when it first came on service and heard the same thing,” he added. “But young people just chewed it up and didn’t miss a beat. What will happen is that whole training system embeds in them how to integrate with the system and airframe, how to integrate with a heads-up display, and how to fly and flight much better in those complex systems.
“I can imagine the first couple of simulated missions and the first one or two live missions will be pretty interesting for trainees,” he added. “But the PC-21 is far easier to fly than the PC-9 – it’s a turboprop, it’s quite benign, and is positively speed stable.”
As might be expected with such a challenging project, the rollout of the program has not been a smooth one. In particular, it has been reported that the simulators initially did not accurately represent the full flight envelope of the actual PC-21, and that the visuals were not of an acceptable standard.
“I would say it definitely did have some problems,” AVM Cath Roberts told us. “But most of them are now resolved, and it has an installation operating permit now. Like anything of this technology, there are areas that we will keep and continue to want to upgrade; change as new technologies become available.”
Shane Fairweather told us that the simulator has been signed off, but will continue to be developed. “It replicates the aircraft pretty well now but, as I’ve stressed, it’s not an aircraft, it’s a flight training device,” he said. “It’s something we’ll continue to develop, but it’s a capable device and we are actually doing some very focused work now to understand how to teach in the simulator.”
AVM Roberts told us that in the decade the AIR 5428 project was running, air combat and training technology rapidly advanced, as did the way pilots needed to be trained. “5428 sounds like a very simple project, but what we did was to embark on a completely new way of training pilots and simulation,” she said.
“It’s very different from how we’ve trained pilots in the past, and needed to be so to be able to generate the air crew that we need for the future, and for the numbers and the types of people that we need to have,” she added. “I think we probably underestimated that it’s a major cultural change as well too.
“Teaching people in the air is something that we have done for decades. But, while it’s not new to the airlines, teaching people through a simulation environment is very new to the air force. What we have done is to create a new system that is modern and innovative – it’s certainly not as simple as just buying a new aircraft and learning to fly in that.”
Because of the initial issues with the system, despite starting training in January 2019 AIR 5428 delayed declaring an Initial Operational Capability (IOC). “We didn’t declare IOC at that time,” AVM Roberts said. “We waited until July 2020 so we could ensure we were good and confident that we would be able to repeatedly train aircrew.
“The PC-21 is a far more contemporary aircraft, and it had some great features that allows us to be able to fly a circuit very well,” she said. “But we’re also training for people who are going to go on to the single-seat F-35, and we’re training for people who may only ever fly aircraft remotely from a ground station. It is a different mix of capabilities that we’re sending people to, so that requires a different type of training.”
The other change the ADF has seen is in trying to align the initial training at CFS and 2FTS with what pilots will experience on the new generation of front-line aircraft.
“All the operational types now have a significant element of simulation,” Fairweather said. “One of the things AIR 5428 will do is to teach pilots how to learn in a simulated environment and to translate that to a real environment, to work through that blended training. With the F-35 for example, their first solo is the first time they fly a live airplane! So training and simulation is very different to training live, and you’ve got to have the cognitive ability to process the two different models and stitch them together in your own head.”
Defence hopes that the fidelity of the training the PTS will eventually deliver will also allow it to lift the graduation percentage of pilots, not just from CFS, but for those striving to get their ‘Wings’ qualification at 2FTS as well. “Defence puts some really fine young men and women into that pilot training pipeline, and currently nearly half of them don’t get through, which is a real waste,” Fairweather told us. “So we’re hoping that the system will lift that part as well, and we’re pretty confident that it will.”
To illustrate this point, Fairweather related the story of a trainee he met during a visit to East Sale. She had previously completed basic training on the CT-4 but then suffered a broken leg and had to be ‘back-coursed’. She told him that she was really nervous when she went solo on the CT-4 because she said she “had no idea” what she was doing. But when she went solo on the PC-21, she said she was “comfortable” because she had completed all of the computer-based training, courseware, and simulation.
“I’ll just put a qualifier on this – we have not achieved that goal yet,” AVM Roberts said. “But when you have a simulation environment people can practice as much as they feel they need to, whereas on PC-9 and CT-4 training they were limited because we had to push them through based on the set number of flying hours we had. And so often, we just couldn’t afford to keep them.
“Now, new pilots will have the opportunity to spend more time if they need to in a simulated environment, so they can hone their skills,” she added. “The aim of that is to keep more people in the course.”
Apart from early issues with the simulators, the system’s courseware was also initially deemed not fit-for-purpose, but has since been remediated and accepted by Defence. “It was not very good,” Fairweather said. “But what I can say is that Lockheed Martin really took it on board and didn’t shy away from it. They really worked at it very hard.”
AVM Roberts added, “There were some very difficult conversations that Shane and I had with Lockheed Martin from 2016 to 2018, but they stepped up to a really good agreement in terms of making it fit-for-purpose. Having computer-based courseware … you would think we would have had it for every aircraft that we had in operation but, in most cases, we were still using what I call ‘chalk and talk’, so it was a big change. There were some significant issues with it that had to be resolved, and it’s still being reviewed and updated.”
While the Team 21 solution for AIR 5428 comprised the same industry members and aircraft as the Singaporean BWC, there were some key differences in requirements that meant elements of the BWC couldn’t just be adapted to the PTS.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to compare the PTS to the BWC,” AVM Roberts said. “‘Why not just use the Singaporean model?’ was asked a lot, but that wasn’t going to give us the systems of systems, the computer-based courseware, the cockpit procedural trainers, and the flight training devices so we could minimise the number of hours that we actually have to fly. We certainly looked at those, but there was never a quick solution to say, ‘just swap to that’, or ‘that product will do’, because it wasn’t going to have that end-to-end approach that we had with the PTS.”
Moving forward, due to the delays in being able to put full courses through the training system – some of 12 months or more – there is a backlog of students that is expected to continue to have an impact into 2022. To this end, the ADF has looked at the temporal discipline model in flying squadrons where it has studied what capabilities will be affected until the backlog is cleared. “We think it’s manageable,” said AVM Roberts, “particularly if we continue on our current trajectory to decrease that backlog. We carefully manage aircrew ‘bubbles’ all the time, particularly in the fast-jet world.”
Certainly, one of the key benefits of having a greater reliance on a well-sorted synthetic training environment is that the ADF will be able to better manage future training bubbles.
There are ongoing challenges in bringing the PC-21 online for the JTAC training role with 4SQN at Williamtown due to the aircraft’s external stores pylons not being suitable for the role.
“JTAC training is definitely something that we’re looking at really closely,” she said. “It wasn’t actually included in the original scope of 5428. The delivery of four PC-21s to 4SQN was included, but we had no expectation that they would instantly deliver a JTAC training solution.
“So we’re actually looking at a number of options, including the PC-21s, as to how we achieve JTAC training,” she said. “We have a contract in the innovation hub at the moment that’s going to inform some different options for JTAC trainings. There is some progress in terms of PC-21, but it is a challenge to make it JTAC training capability.”
While industry rumours have raised the possibility of the acquisition of a separate type for JTAC training, AVM Roberts said that isn’t the ADF’s preference. “Quite frankly, we have so many types at the moment, I don’t think we can cope with another one,” she said.
“But the JTAC training is not just about the airborne elements,” she added. “We do think that there are some quite innovative ways that we can achieve it in the aircraft and provide what we need. But the PC-21 won’t be doing the same things that a PC-9 did in terms of how we train the JTAC course.”
So, many of the key lessons from the ADF’s AIR 5428 experience will need to be applied for future developmental system-of-systems style programs such as AIR 5428 Phase 3 AMTS requirement.
These will no doubt include early-phase flexibility during project definition, options to insert and upgrade technology as required, and the selection of the most appropriate platform to meet the requirement.
“I think the first thing is to understand your requirements in terms of the system, and embracing the fact that technology is probably going to outstrip the solicitation process,” Fairweather offered. “So we need to build a dynamic element into the delivery phase, so we can adapt on the run.
“I think the other lessons that we’ve learned out of it is to make sure we have the right expertise engaged with the contractor – these programs aren’t just engineering programs, they’re training and systems programs,” he added.
“And I think the other one I would add is for your industry partner to not have their focus of control of the program located offshore – it just makes it so much harder. When you’re dealing with something complex like this, you need the decision-makers engaged on the ground here.”
Featured Photo: Head of Air Force Capability, AVM Cath Roberts at the acceptance of the 49th and final PC-21. (ADF)
This article was written by Andrew McLaughlin and published by ADBR in their November-December 2020 issue.