Farnborough 2012

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Saudis look to surge pilot training in UK

By: Tim Ripley Published: 10 Jul 2012

Saudi Arabia is negotiating with the UK to start training pilots at RAF Valley in Wales as part of the GBP1.6 billion (USD2.5 billion) training deal between the two governments that was announced on 23 May this year.

Under the arrangements that will complement the sale of 22 new BAE Systems Hawk advanced jet trainers - designated Mk 165 - to the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) for use at its home bases, Saudi student and instructor pilots could start training at the RAF base early next year.

The measure is seen as an interim activity that could last up to three years until the new Hawks, other new training aircraft and simulators come on line at RSAF home bases later in the decade.

Expansion of the RSAF fast jet fleet over the next decade is also driving the expansion of the service's training requirements and prompting efforts to rapidly increase pilot training in the short term, say industry executives familiar with the project.

The number of Saudi students is such that the RAF is looking to extend in service a number of its Hawk T.1 aircraft - which had previously been envisaged as being withdrawn from service this year - to cope with the additional training load. Until late 2011 the RAF operated around 50 Hawk T.1s at RAF Valley, but it is thought that not more than a "couple of dozen" aircraft will be involved in the extension of service. The T.1s were due to be replaced by the new T.2s or Mk 128s.

Air Commodore Terry Jones, RAF Director Flying Training and Air Officer Commander 22 Group, confirmed at the Farnborough Airshow on 10 July that negotiations were under way with the Saudis.

"The plan up to six months ago was for the T.1s to go this year," he said. "While we talk to the Saudis we are also looking to run on the T.1 fleet .... The prospects are high [for] a run-on."

The expectation for additional RSAF pilots is forcing the RAF to review its own training at the base and might see UK students also continue to use the T.1 variant, to free up space for the Saudis on the new Hawk T.2s that began to be used for student training at RAF Valley in April this year. This is because of the need to train Saudi instructors on the synthetic training devices and systems on the T.2, which mirrors the configuration of the Saudi Mk 165s.

"As it stands now, all [UK students] are currently destined to go to the T.2," said Air Cdre Jones. "If the international defence training goes ahead we have to look again at it."

According to Air Cdre Jones, 10 UK students are currently training on the T.2 and 16 instructors are already trained to operate the aircraft; 10 more instructors are undergoing training. He said IV Squadron, which operates all of the RAF's 22 Hawk T.2s, was able to cope with a throughput of up to 50 students per year. "We are not working to full capacity. Our throughput is 28 to 30 RAF students and four to eight Royal Navy students a year," he said.

Air Cdre Jones described the T.2 as a "stunning" aircraft after flying it earlier this year. He said the training was progressing well and efforts were under way to further exploit the potential of the T.2 and its onboard synthetic training systems. Negotiations are also under way with the RAF Eurofighter Typhoon operational conversion unit at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire to transfer all of the Typhoon air-to-air training phase onto the Hawk T.2. "Such is the performance of the T.2," he said.

Michael Christie, BAE Systems' director of Hawk aircraft programmes, said the company was expecting a request for proposals from its Indian customer "within months" for 20 more Hawks to equip the Indian Air Force's Surya Kiran Aerobatics Team. The Indian Air Force announced its intention to buy the aircraft in December 2011. Christie said this purchase would take the Hawk through the 1,000-aircraft sales figure, with 990 aircraft sold to date.