Other training changes may be in the pipeline, too. Since 1997, all U.K. helicopter pilots have been trained through the Defense Helicopter Flying School private finance initiative contract with Bristow and Cobham-owned FBHeliservices at RAF Shawbury, England. The service has proved the viability of a private contractor conducting training, and there are plans to bring the school under the umbrella of the Military Flight Training System in 2019.
“An opportunity is emerging to take a fresh look at the way we do rotary-wing training,” Dixon says. “A number of things, such as much higher-fidelity synthetic training and use of software in training products, allow us to move a significant amount of real aircraft flying into the synthetic space with the financial benefits. . . . There are a number of options, ranging from the replacement of the status quo right the way through to a different model.”
One idea being considered is for frontline pilots to perform skills-recovery flying on a fleet of helicopters that are less costly to operate than frontline types.
Recognition of the Joint Helicopter Command's work in Afghanistan is perhaps demonstrated by the funding it has enjoyed in recent years. Every helicopter type in its fleet has received or is about to undergo some kind of major investment or modernization. The new AgustaWestland Wildcat is now entering service with the British Army, while updating the EH101 Merlin and Apache attack helicopter are top priorities for the force. The Merlin upgrade program, which is currently unfunded, will add folding main and tail-rotor systems as well as address obsolescence issues to ready it for shipborne operations with the Royal Navy's Commando Helicopter Force.
Meanwhile, the Attack Helicopter Capability Sustainment Program to modernize the British Army's Apache helicopters is being assessed. Dixon says, “the signs are that we would likely go down the upgrade route.” The key issues at stake are addressing obsolescence in the U.K.'s aging Block I aircraft and ensuring the fleet's longer-term sustainability as the U.S. Army and other countries upgrade to the Block III standard. The program aims to make sure that the Apache continues to perform as the “teeth” of the helicopter forces until about 2040.
Dixon says recognition of the role of helicopters in Afghanistan has permeated the Defense Ministry at every level of policy, with its crews flying in and out of harm's way every day there in a way that was inconceivable just a few years ago.