Aircraft enthusiasts living in Adelaide were treated to the sight of several huge Antonov An-124 freighters coming and going from the airport just before Christmas, all in support of Australia’s P-8A Poseidon program.
The Antonovs were bringing in two Operational Flight Trainers (OFT - full motion cockpit simulators) and an Ordnance Load Trainer (OLT), which are now being installed and tested at RAAF Base Edinburgh, ahead of P-8A training getting underway in Australia in the second half of the year.
Twelve P-8As are being delivered to the RAAF under Project Air 7000 Phase 2B, the manned component of a future manned/unmanned teaming with the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton, which will replace the existing AP-3C Orion maritime capability.
The 2016 Defence White Paper forecasts the purchase of a further three aircraft later in the next decade, bringing the total to 15.
By the end of 2017, five aircraft had been delivered to 11 Squadron at Edinburgh and further deliveries will occur at a drumbeat of approximately one aircraft every three months until 2020. As this article was being prepared, Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was expected to occur, on schedule, in January 2018.
In addition, six Australian P-8A crews had been trained by December 2017, having undertaken their courses with the US Navy at NAS Jacksonville in Florida.
The project timetable calls for training to begin in Australia in July 2018 and, according to Wing Commander Gary Lewis, Deputy Director Capability Transition (DD-CT), at 92 Wing, everything is on track to support that event.
Training in the US
The RAAF has been sending future P-8A crews to Jacksonville to undergo conversion to the new aircraft with the US Navy’s Patrol Squadron 30 (VP-30).
To the present time all training has been transition training, undertaken by experienced AP-3C pilots and mission crews, but this will change to include ab-initio candidates once local training gets underway at Edinburgh.
“Six years ago we formulated a plan of how we would transition from 12 Orion crews to 12 P-8A crews and in the broadest sense that involved initially sending crews to Jacksonville to undertake the US Navy’s P-3 to P-8 transition course, so we weren’t teaching brand new people who had never flown on anything,” WGCDR Lewis explained to ADM.
“At the point when our simulators came on line here at RAAF Edinburgh, the transition for our remaining crews would be undertaken in the purpose-built Integrated Training Centre. Obviously the earlier we can do that the better, because people aren’t away, it’s cheaper and we can tailor the training to our people. And when our simulators do become available we will kick in the ab-initio training and have new people joining the Wing for the first time and we’ll teach them how to fly and operate the P-8A.”
Two RAAF crews are undergoing training at Jacksonville at any one time and their courses (pilot, Air Combat Officer and Sensor Operator) are broadly speaking of six months’ duration. On their return to Australia, some are posted to 11 Sqn in an operational role and others to the P-8A training unit, 292 Sqn, as instructors.
“As an example, a crew which completed their training in the US in the first half of 2017 will have the second half of the year to hone their skills and gain some operational experience with 11 Sqn,” WGCDR Lewis said. “Before moving to 292 Sqn in the first half of this year to prepare to become instructors and then in the second half of 2018 they will start teaching students in Australia how to operate the P-8A.”
Integrated Training Centre
The Integrated Training Centre at Edinburgh is due to be completed in time for local training to begin in July and the 16,500 square metre centre will accommodate 70 advanced P-8A operational and tactical training devices including two pilot simulators (OFTs), two Weapons Task Trainers (WTT) and the 737 fuselage Ordnance Load Trainer (OLT).
Boeing Defence Australia is on contract to provide P-8A and the OFTs, which are based on a 737 simulator built by CAE, who supply them to Boeing for integration at RAAF Edinburgh. The Level D OFTs are similar to the P-8A OFTs that CAE has already developed for Boeing for delivery to the US Navy and are the 17th and 18th off the assembly line.
“There’s an extreme amount of risk reduction in doing that,” WGCDR Lewis said. “If we’re buying the 17th P-8A project simulator, a huge amount of risk has been reduced, compared with building a bespoke simulator here ourselves. This has been a conscious decision by the RAAF and it has paid dividends, in terms of the maturity of those simulators.”
Also within the Integrated Training Centre are two Boeing-developed Weapons Task Trainers (WTT), which will be used to train the ‘back end’ P-8A crews. They can be used to train multiple mission operators at the same time and they can also be linked to the OFTs to provide training to be undertaken as a complete crew.
The large OLT is essentially a mock-up of a P-8A fuselage, including one wing, which will be used to training maintenance personnel on procedures that would otherwise require a real aircraft to be taken off the line.
WGCDR Lewis said this approach is a break from tradition where, in the past maintenance training has been carried out on a real aircraft because it had been deemed cheaper than buying expensive, high fidelity training aids.
“We are making a conscious switch to enable more fleet availability,” he explained. “A small investment in maintenance training devices allows us to have more aircraft available on the flight line to conduct operations.”
Training in Australia
By the beginning of 2018, Boeing Defence Australia was busy installing, uploading software, testing and certifying the training devices to enable local training to begin on schedule.
Wing Commander Lewis says that training in Australia will be almost identical to that undertaken by the US Navy, with very few changes to meet local conditions and requirements. The biggest difference so far has concerned the adaption of some of the visual displays to reflect the Australian operating environment.
“We have purchased the exact same training devices and hardware and software-wise they are interchangeable,” he said. “Where we differ is in their operational scenarios, if you are in the US Navy simulator for example, you are flying from Jacksonville, but we want to look out of the window and see RAAF Base Edinburgh.”
Because the transition course in particular has a finite life (it will all have been completed when the last AP-3C crew makes the transition to the P-8A), there is not much point re-inventing the wheel.
“We’re probably going to be able to execute the transition course more quickly than the US Navy just because of our smaller number of students,” he said. “The three courses (pilot, ACO and Sensor Operator) all start at different times and run for different lengths and they all need access to different training aids at different times, but they all culminate with some crew flying and crew simulator episodes, so there’s a detailed scheduling task that needs to be worked out. You may make savings in time on the individual courses, but the critical path will be waiting for the other two courses to catch up.”
For pilots undertaking the P-8A transition course, around 9-10 flights over the six months or so will be conducted on the real aircraft and the remainder performed in the OFTs. Back end crews will only have one flight in the real aircraft during their courses, before joining with the pilots as a crew and a further five flights will be flown together before they become qualified.
At the moment, WGCDR Lewis says the date of the last transition course is yet to be determined, because it may be possible to train more than two crews at a time as the training system in Australia gains momentum.
“At the moment we would hope to have transition from the AP-3C complete in around 2019 or 2020,” he confirmed.
Although Australia’s Triton program, being delivered under Air 7000 Phase 1B is yet to achieve the Gate 2 milestone (due around the end of the first quarter this year), there are nevertheless some synergies with P-8A training which may be realised in time.
This holds particularly true for the mission crew and the US Navy is beginning to explore this area, as their Triton training continuum begins to gather momentum.
The first operational Triton was delivered to the US Navy at Point Mugu in California in November last year and, after a period of bedding-in operations, both it and a second aircraft will forward-deploy to Guam before the end of the year.
To support this operation, the US Navy has established a Triton mission system trainer at NAS Jacksonville Florida, alongside its Poseidon training systems. By the end of 2017 the first crew, comprising pilots, payload managers and mission managers, had completed their training.
This article first appeared in the February edition of ADM.