Training Operations During Challenging Times

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on air travel and commercial aerospace across Europe, we reflect on own recent challenges as an aviation organisation to support our customers. Given the critical nature of our defence customers’ activities, it has been imperative for us to maintain operations throughout the ongoing pandemic to provide much needed capabilities in support of national security. However this has been no easy feat.

To give a sense of the situation, we asked Mike Sutton, Deputy Director of Flight Operations of our fixed-wing business, to share his views on how the outbreak has impacted the Operational Readiness Training side of our business.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our delivery of Operational Readiness Training tasks?

The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy needed us to continue flying throughout the period to support their training, and as an organisation, we have managed to achieve this which is an enormous credit to everyone involved. There was huge uncertainty back in March about the threat that the virus posed, and how we should react. However, the MOD quickly designated us as key workers, Government advice was changing rapidly and working from home was clearly not an option. So there were a lot of late nights as we tried to understand the situation and adapt our processes so that we could support our customers while ensuring the safety of our people, which was clearly our primary concern.

What preventative measures have been put in place for flying operations to enable you to continue working safely?

We have already got a mature aviation risk management process which was helpful when we were generating COVID-19 policies. We followed the Government guidance, used some of the guidance coming out of aviation regulatory bodies and from some of the European airlines, but there are unique challenges in the flying environment that meant we had to adapt. For example crews cannot socially distance in the cockpit, or wear masks when flying, and we regularly conduct large formations which mean that multiple crews need to operate in close proximity to each other when planning and briefing. To mitigate these issues we had to rapidly re-organise our infrastructure and change some of our ways of operating to minimise the risks. The measures included keeping the same crews together for the week; regularly sanitising the aircraft; re-organising mission planning areas; taking temperature checks; distancing when planning and debriefing, and attempting to keep Bournemouth and Teesside crews separate. To manage the overall process we held daily COVID-19 risk meetings and ran a number of contingency scenarios to understand how we would react should there be an outbreak at work.

What is being done to ensure the continuation of this essential training service?

We are meeting all of our UK tasking, and have done so throughout. A number of overseas detachments in support of NATO have been cancelled due to international quarantine requirements, although we are planning to start deploying in support of these in the coming weeks. The closure of the Falcon simulator in France also caused issues, as pilots are mandated to conduct regular assessments so we have a large backlog of these to clear.

How prepared are you should another outbreak occur in the future?

As the last few weeks have shown, there is likely to be more uncertainty ahead as countries and regions are subjected to different degrees of lockdown and quarantine. We now have systems in place where we can essentially tighten or ease our Covid processes to ensure that we can react as the situation demands. As our understanding of the virus continues to improve we will evolve accordingly, and I am very confident that we can continue to deliver successful operational readiness training to the UK, US and NATO Armed Forces in the months ahead.