Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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RAF Flying Training Development

Since its formation in 1918 flying training system in the RAF has undergone a number of changes, which are briefly outlined below.

1918 - 1933

Despite the RFC and RNAS making use of observers in addition to pilots during World War One, Trenchard decided that his post-war Air Force would only employ pilots, so when the aircraft and the operation required an observer, these duties would be performed by another pilot.  Some Observers were retaining in the post war RAF but on the basis that they would re-train as pilots, which most did.  Trenchard also decided that all officers should pilots, to be known as General Duties Officers (GD), (this branch excluded specialists such as medical and Stores/Accountant officers) but as this would result in a higher percentage of officers to airmen than would be found in the Royal Navy and Army, he introduced the Short Service Commission (SSC).  This allowed an officer to serve for five years on the active list before transferring to the reserve and gave the service a large pool of trained pilots, whilst not blocking the promotion prospects of those officers on Permanent Commissions (PC). 

Officers awarded PC mainly came through the RAF College at Cranwell, who undertook a two year training course, which included their flying training.  Officers selected for SSC first attended the RAF Depot at Uxbridge, where they were issued with their uniforms and undertook a short induction course before reporting to a Flying Training School (FTS), where they completed their flying training.  Initially flying types such as the Avro 504K, 504 N, Tutor and then Tiger Moth they then went onto fly service types, similar to those they would be likely to fly in the operational squadrons, such as Bristol F2B Fighter, DH9A, Siskin and Hart.  After about a year at the FTS they would be posted to a squadron, as would those who graduated from the RAF College.  It would now be up to the squadron to complete the officer's training and bring them up to operational standard.  The newly qualified pilot might undertake a more specialised course such as those chosen to join flying boat squadrons but generally he would be trained 'on the job' on his squadron.  Having gained more experience those officers on PCs might be considered to undertake more specialised training in Pilotage (Navigation), Photography, Signals or Engineering, whilst those on SSCs would generally complete their service with a couple of units and then retire on to the Reserve List.

Officers on SSCs could apply for extensions to their SSC or for a Medium Service Commission or even a PC, which many did successfully.  Pilots serving on flying boats were particularly required to be able to navigate and would be expected to attend the Pilotage/Navigation Course, a skill not felt that necessary for pilots mainly flying over land.  Each year squadrons would attend a week's Armament Practice Camp, where they would be able to fire live ammunition and drop practice bombs and be assessed on their abilities.  As indicated earlier, GD officers were expected to fulfil a number of duties so whilst primarily pilots, they could train to be engineers, photographic officers and signals officers, etc.  Once qualified they could then be employed on squadrons in those capacities, in addition to flying, or be similarly employed at HQ units, training schools or repair depots, without any flying responsibilities.

It has already been noted that during this period the role of observer was generally carried out by another pilot, often a junior less experienced officer, but a number of types required personnel to operate the defensive armament in the form of hand held machine guns mounted on, what was known as, 'Scarf' Rings.  Personnel for these duties were obtained from ground crew volunteers, who would be expected to fulfil their flying duties in addition to the ground trades.  Most of these personnel were training on their squadrons, although it was possible for them to undertake specialist courses at the Air Armament School or at a an overseas school and once considered 'qualified' they were permitted to wear the 'flying bullet' badge (see the badges section in the public area).  Many of these Air Gunners were also expected to act as observers due to the shortages of pilots but the training arrangements for them was far from ideal and there was no standardisation in the training they received.

A major requirement of the flying training system was of course Flying Instructors.  In the early days of the RFC and RNAS, these had been provided by assigning pilots resting from operations to the role but there was no attempt to ascertain whether these individuals possessed the skills or abilities to undertake such duties.  The first major development in flying training came about when Major Robert Smith-Barry was allowed to put is theories into practice at the School of Special Flying at Gosport in 1917.  He only employed instructors who had demonstrated their flying skills and aptitude for instructing, only used one type of  training aircraft, the Avro 504, which were equipped with the 'Gosport Tube' system which allowed the instructor and pupil to talk to each other and devised a standardised syllabus to followed by every instructor.  The other major change was that pupils were taught to get into and recover from situations previously avoided due to them being too dangerous, such as stalling, spinning and sideslipping.  This method of training was so successful that it was eventually adopted throughout the RAF and the Central Flying School was tasked with training instructors in its execution.

It was not long before it was realised that finding enough personnel to train as pilots on PCs or SSCs couldn't actually keep pace with the requirements of the service that the decision was taken to employ NCO Pilots.  However, these were not to be recruited directly into the service but to be sourced from existing RAF ground personnel, who had to have reached the rank of Sergeant.  This scheme was probably introduced in around 1923/4, with the successful applicants being trained at the existing FTSs along with those entering on SSCs.  In order to prevent the service losing large numbers of highly skilled ground personnel, their conditions of employment as pilots required that after five years they would return to their ground trades, although they could apply for extensions or to return to flying at a later date.

1933 - 1939

By 1933 the employment of ground personnel as part-time Observers and Air Gunners was beginning to be recognised and in August 1934 it was announced that existing personnel with over seven years service could apply to be Air Observers with those serving as Wireless Mechanics or Wireless Operators being the preferred trade group and Armourers being the next preferred group. Following a two month course at the AAS these air observers would serve as Corporals.  This still didn't provide sufficient personnel so in 1935 the requirement was reduced to six years service and in 1936 more trade groups were allowed to apply and the period of service was reduced to four years but promotion to Corporal would only be possible after completion of six years service.  It had been planned that the part time air gunner would be replaced by air observers but with insufficient personnel coming forward it was found necessary to continue using air gunners.  Despite fewer trainees coming forward the existing training system based on the AAS was still unable to cope and new Air Observer Schools were formed.

In 1935 a major change took place in the training of pilots, which resulted in all elementary flying training was to be carried out at civilian run flying schools (Called Elementary and Reserve Flying Training Schools (ERFTS). This involved an eight week course in which the pupil undertook 50 hours flying training as well as basic theory, on successful completion of which the candidate was awarded a SSC, attended the RAF Depot and then reported to a FTS to undertake the intermediate and advanced elements of the training.  However, the newly qualified pilot was posted straight a squadron, which remained responsible for ensuring the completion of his operational training.

Another change occurred in 1936 with the introduction of the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) on 27 August that year.  Unlike the existing Auxiliary Air Force, members of the RAFVR were not embodied into designated units but undertook weekly training at Town Centres and received flying training at weekends with a local ERFTS, but provision for training on service types wasn't initially made.  However by 1937/38 the ERFTSs were operating types such as the Hart and were able to bring the training up to roughly the equivalent of the intermediate level of a FTS.  Recruiting of non-pilot members of the RAFVR began in November 1938, which required the establishment of civilian operated observer schools.  The Military Training Act of May 1939 allowed RAFVR personnel to be called up for six months training, permitting them to complete the advanced phase of their training at a FTS but many of these personnel wouldn't complete their training until after being mobilised in August 1939.

1940 - 1945

The start of the war in September 1939, brought an end to the policy of part-time aircrew and it was announced that air gunners and observers would be recruited as direct entrants and in December 1939 a new Air Gunners Flying Badge was introduced based on the Observers badge design, which had been re-introduced in 1937.  These changes led to the opening of a whole new range of schools tor train observers, wireless operators and air gunners.

The rapid expansion prior to the war and after it had started was soon putting a strain on the existing training system.  On the outbreak of war the ERFTSs had been embodied into the RAF as Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS) but to relieve them of the need to provide the necessary 'ground schooling' in aviation related subjects it was decided to set up Initial Training Wings to carry out this element of the training.  These were set up at seaside resorts or university towns around the country, where there was the necessary accommodation available and it was here that aircrew trainees undertook their initial training before beginning the flying phase at an EFTS.  At the same time the FTSs were redesignated Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS).

Even before the war broke out it had become clear that the 'traditional' role of squadrons undertaking the operational training was going to be unsatisfactory so soon after the outbreak certain squadrons were taken out of the front-line to become training units.  These squadrons were tasked with carrying out the operational training of newly qualified pilots before passing them to the operational units being redesignated Group Pools.  In early 1940 the Group Pools were redesignated as Operational Training Units

The next major change took place as a result of the Establishment of the Empire (later Commonwealth) Air Training Plan (EATP/CATP), which saw the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia setting up training school for pilots and observers in these countries and were joined by schools provided in South Africa by these were never part of the EATP.  These schools allowed students to train in better weather conditions outside of a war zone and they were later joined by RAF schools set up in the USA, where further facilities were also provided by the US Navy and US Army Air Corps/Army Air Force. 

In late 1940 and into 1941 Bomber Command began to introduce four engined bombers beginning with the Stirling, then the Halifax and finally the Lancaster but the OTUs were equipped with Wellingtons, Whitleys or Hampdens so a new level of training was introduced in the form of Conversion Flights, which were attached to squadrons to assist in the conversion of crews from twin engined to four engined types, eventually, these flights were combined into Conversion Units, later redesignated Heavy Conversion Units.

As a result of the increased training of pilots and observers overseas the role of the SFTSs in the UK was gradually changing as they began to provide acclimatisation and familiarisation training to personnel trained in the clear conditions of those countries.   They were now training personnel to fly in blackout conditions, industrial haze and under wartime restrictions rather than those to which they had been accustomed, so in 1942 the SFTS were redesignated as (Pilot) or (Observer) Advanced Flying Units.

World War Two saw a massive increase in the use of electronic aids in the form of airborne interception radar, anti-shipping radar and blind bombing aids, which required another expansion of the signals training facilities.  Other factors which helped increase the range of flying training units were the development of glider and parachute delivery methods, the need to provide readily available armament training facilities to permit crews to maintain their proficiency levels and the increasing need for instructors to provide all this training.

1945 - 2016

With the war over the overseas schools rapidly closed and the training system soon reverted to something resembling the pre-war situation with aircrew training at an FTS or Air Navigation School after which they proceed to an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU, similar to a wartime OTU) before joining an operational squadron.  The war had witnessed the introduction of the jet aircraft to the RAF but at this stage the training aircraft in use were still powered by piston engines so the first change that occurred was the Advance Flying Training Schools to convert pilots training on piston aircraft to jets.  In 1955 this began to change when No 2 FTS began the first all through training course using the Jet Provost where students undertook the whole of their course on jet aircraft.

Overseas training continued in Rhodesia from 1946 to 1954 under the control of the Rhodesian Air Training Group but when this closed training reverted to the UK, although some pilots have been training in Canada under the NATO Training Programme.  The RAFVR was reconstituted after the war which required the formation of Reserve Flying Schools around the country, generally operated by civilian contractors, in a similar manner to the pre-war ERFTSs.  Large numbers of reservists also required facilities to maintain a level of currency, which saw the introduction of Refresher Flying Units.

By the mid 1960s all pilots were receiving the same basic training phase on the Jet Provost, at the end of which they were selected as either Fast Jet, Multi-engine or Helicopter pilots.  The advanced phase was then undertaken at a different FTS with the Flying Badge, 'Wings', being awarded on completion of this phase, after which the pilot would proceed to the OCU relevant to the type, where they would join other aircrew members, where appropriate.  Later it became apparent that the failure rate in the basic phase was becoming higher than desired, so in an attempt to reduce this a grading stage was reintroduced (a similar system had been used in WW2 and the 1950s) designed to assess whether the candidate actually possessed the necessary aptitude in the air.  By the mid 1970s all non-pilot training had been centralised at a single FTS (No 6 at Finningley), which was also responsible for the training of multi-engine pilots.

As the Jet Provost neared the end of its service life it was decided to replace it with the turbo-prop powered Tucano, which began to enter service in 1988, but the phases remained the same.  Since 2008 the UK's Military Flying training System has been run by Ascent, a consortium between Lockheed Martin and Babcock.  Currently, all pilots complete an elementary phase on the Grob Tutor, on completion of which they are streamed to fast jet, multi-engine or rotary wing, at which point they proceed to the relevant FTS.  At the end of this phase they are awarded they are awarded their flying badges at which point they proceed to a relevant OCU, except in the case of fast jet pilots, who first attend the Advanced Fast Jet Course at No 4 FTS, which converts them to pure jets and is also concerned with weapons and tactical training.

In 2003 the individual aircrew categories of Navigator, Signaller, Air Electronics Operator/Officer, Air Engineer and Air Loadmaster were replaced by the single category of Weapons System Operator.  However, as aircraft navigation systems have become increasingly GPS based and the newer types of aircraft entering service have been equipped with 'glass cockpits' the demand for navigators and air engineers has practically disappeared and the service is currently relying on those already trained but are not training new personnel.  As a result the main roles conducted by non-pilot aircrew are linguists on the Rivet Joint and WSO (Loadmasters) for transport aircraft and support helicopters.  These roles tend to be carried out by NCOs so after completing their recruit training at Halton, they move to Cranwell for an 11 week NCO course, which is then followed by a 10 week WSO course, also at Cranwell.  Linguists then spent 72 weeks at the Defence Language Centre at Chicksands before returning to 45 Squadron at Cranwell for a couple of weeks after which they are awarded their flying badge.  Multi-engined crewmen spend 19 weeks with 45 Squadron before being awarded their flying badges and are then posted to an OCU.  Rotary Wing Crewmen complete a 6 week lead-in course with 60 Squadon at the Defence Helicopter School, RAF Shawbury and then a further 40 weeks with the squadron before qualifying and being posted to an OCU.

Brief histories of those units involved in aspects of RAF flying training have been grouped as follows: -

Elementary training

Basic/Intermediate training (also including units that covered the elementary through to the advanced phases)

Advanced training

Operational training (including type conversion)

Post-graduate training


This page was last updated on 26/05/17 using FrontPage 2003

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