Written on 15 February 2011
I wrote most of this page several years ago, but I updated and extended it today, 15 February 2011, following the shock announcement yesterday that 100 RAF trainee pilots are to have their commissions terminated. I never cease to be amazed by the PR disasters that highly paid, degree-educated, media relations people regularly bring upon themselves and their employers, be they Government ministers, oil company executives, footballers or ‘celebrities’. The job descriptions and titles have changed over the decades since I started, from the plain and simple ‘Press Officer’ (before ‘media’ had even been invented) to the high-faluting ‘Communications Director’. However, the basic principle hasn’t changed: you must always do your best for the organisation you are working for – and never embarrass them.
Yesterday we had the announcement that a quarter of RAF pilots currently under training would have their commissions terminated immediately. At the time of my retirement in 2001, almost all trainee pilots were entering the RAF via the Air Training Corps (from the age of 13 or 14), then University and the University Air Squadrons, often with scholarships paid for by the RAF. That is probably the same for the current crop of would-be pilots. So, the trainees being ‘laid off’ now have probably already spent the last 5, 6, 7 or even 8 years dreaming of a career as a Royal Air Force pilot – and have already cost the RAF many millions of pounds. It is devastating news for them. They have been cast out for political expediency.
What I fear the politicians do not realise now in 2011 is that by reducing the throughput of trainee pilots, you also produce a surplus of qualified flying instructors (QFIs) and training aircraft. "There's no point in training pilots if there are no aircraft for them to fly" stated one of the Defence Ministers smugly yesterday. Do the Ministers realise how long it takes to train a QFI before he can train a student pilot and how long it then takes that student to progress to operational standard? Will the RAF still be able to recruit young men and women to train as pilots. Will we then have sufficient training aircraft to replace the ones that will probably be sold off soon on eBay. Will we still have airfields, and air traffic controllers, that can cope with high density student circuit flying?
Several times during my career the RAF got the pilot training stream badly wrong. At one period in the mid-1960s, for example, there was an embarrassingly large number of student pilots coming out of training because, allegedly, a star-ranking officer in Flying Training Command had decreed that there was no such thing as a bad student, only bad instructors. You can imagine how that went down with the QFIs and their superiors. Accordingly, quite a few trainee pilots who should have been suspended from training were passed through the training system, awarded their pilot's wings - and posted to the V Force! It had been decided that the only place they could be employed was in the right hand seat of our nuclear bombers. Their personal files were annotated in red ink "This officer is to be employed on co-pilot duties only." I know that for a fact because by that time I was the staff officer at HQ No 3 Group RAF Mildenhall who had custody of the personal files of all Valiant and Victor pilots of flight lieutenant and below rank.
With my superiors at HQ 3 Group we discussed that decision with the staff officers responsible for allocating crews to the Victor bombers - the media, incidentally, always referred to the V Force crews as "The cream of the RAF"! To use today's terminology we were, to a man, gob-smacked that any senior officer could make such a crass statement - but of course none of us would dare say so and there were no whistle-blowers. Those below-average pilots were not told of their status nor that they could never hope to graduate to a captaincy in the left hand seat. I imagine the great British Public would not have been happy had they know that some of our nuclear bombers had below average co-pilots in the right hand seat. What might have happened had the captain been incapacitated at any time in peacetime let alone had we gone to war? Before I discovered what happened to them I was sent off to do my own pilot training!!