Gary Parsons reports from RAF Cranwell on the introduction of a new type to RAF service
Two Kings arrived at Cranwell on 16 December 2003 - not the usual sort of Royalty that the College has been used to in the past, but two Beechcraft King Air B200s, the first aircraft of an eventual seven that will replace the ageing Jetstreams of 45(R) Squadron, commanded by Wing Commander Steve Townsend.
Another product of the steamroller that is Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the King Airs will carry out all the RAF's requirement for Multi-Engine Pilot training for the next five years at least, so becoming a familiar sight in the skies of Lincolnshire. All the aircraft are owned and operated by Serco Defence and Aerospace, the successful bidder for the contract that was awarded just six months ago, an indication of the urgent need to find a replacement for the venerable Jetstream. As Group Captain Rob Cunningham, OC 3 FTS and Station Commander RAF Cranwell commented, "It marks the beginning of a new era for 3 FTS and pilot training in particular. It's a new way of doing business in delivering flying training through leased aircraft."
King and heir
Certainly the Jetstream has provided sterling service for the last thirty years, but in recent times has suffered a poor serviceability record, with an average of 55 - 60% availability. With an ever-decreasing number of aircraft available, this has led to a shortfall of flying training hours and so some basic training has had to be outsourced to Oxford Air Training at Kidlington as a result, an unsatisfactory situation in the long-term as it doesn't cover the mission profiles required by the syllabus. Also, the Jetstream's area-navigation system will be non-compliant with Airspace regulations from 2005, a further reason to replace it sooner, rather than later.
The King Air B200 is an interim solution (known as the Multi-engine Interim Solution (MIS)) over a five year contract with Serco. Serco's contract is the first of its kind to deliver a fixed-wing aircraft solution to the RAF through a service solution - the first aircraft have been delivered less than six months after contract award and all seven aircraft will be delivered within a year, by March 2004 (two in December, two in January and the last three in March).
The £60m contract, which formally commences on 1 April 2004, will provide 5,500 flying hours on the King Air B200 leased from Raytheon Aircraft Company (through a company called NAC who are European agents for the UK), plus 3,000 hours Frasca simulator training per annum. From 1 April the need to outsource training to Oxford Air Training will cease. Before then, the contract allows for 400 hours prior to 1 April for instructor training and setting up of the CAA approved maintenance support package, overseen by Serco as part of the RAF Cranwell Multi-Activity Contract (MAC) that will also encompass the servicing of 55(R) Squadron's Dominies. The MAC services include management and administration, aircraft maintenance and mechanical support facilities, aircraft avionics and electrical support facilities, media services, communications information systems, MT operations and maintenance, supply support, fire and crash rescue services, aptitude testing team and aircraft leasing. Some 350 staff will transfer from the incumbent contractor to Serco.
Due to expire in 2009, the contract has options for three one-year contract extensions in case the new Military Flying Training System (MFTS) is still under evaluation at that time, plus a 15% contingency if expansion of training is required. There is a strong possibility that a common platform for both pilot and navigator training will be recommended, but whether the King Air B200 is the ideal candidate has yet to be evaluated.
The basic METS course consists of 30 hours on the Firefly, followed by 70 hours on Jetstream/King Air B200 before the students graduate with their wings and proceed to the relevant OCU. An additional 30 hours or so is done on the simulator, two of which will be installed at Cranwell in the next few months. The aim of the course is to train the student pilot so he can captain a Jetstream/King Air B200 by day and night and hold an instrument rating.
The seven aircraft to be provided are all brand new, straight off the production line from the Raytheon factory at Wichita, Kansas. Although the design is as old as the Jetstream it replaces, the King Air line has become the best-selling turboprop business aircraft with more than 6,000 sold worldwide. Unlike the Jetstream, it has been constantly improved over the last forty years and is very much a modern aircraft in terms of avionics, engine technology and flying characteristics. With a similar specification to the Jetstream, it can however fly slightly faster and has a longer range and also a 35,000 ft ceiling, somewhat better than its predecessor's 25,000 ft limit. Many military variants have been produced, principally the C-12 for the US forces.
Although Serco's contract was awarded just six months ago, since then the aircraft have been modified to suit RAF requirements, principally in the removal of the wooden dummy bulkhead behind the pilots and the installation of a jump seat and UHF radio. As the rest of the fit is essentially King Air specification, they come with sumptuous leather seats, something certainly not enjoyed on the rather more utilitarian Jetstream! Sadly the cocktail cabinet had to go, though...
Restrictions due to being civil registered are few - the main one is that the aircraft cannot fly below 500 ft as opposed to 250 ft in the military-registered Jetstream, but this was considered not to be a big problem. After-contract sales are important, one reason the aircraft will stay on the civil register. As Serco's Deputy Project Director for UKMFTS, Alan Ferguson, said - "It's known internationally as the 'drug-runners' choice of aeroplane because of its robustness and reliability!" Certainly not the sort of sortie expected from the RAF, but an unusual endorsement of the type's reputation for 'delivering the goods'!
Exit the Jetstream
159 Course will be the last to graduate on the Jetstream, finishing on 19 March 2004. The first King Air Course will commence on 29 March, once all instructors have been trained on the four machines to be delivered by the end of January. All remaining Jetstreams will be retired on 22 March, their fates unknown at present, although one will go to the RAF Museum at Cosford. It represents the retirement of another British type from RAF service, also the last ever produced by the old Handley-Page Company - see Exit the Jetstream, March 2004.