In December 2011, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) approved plans to procure two British Aerospace 146-200QC aircraft under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR). Now, little more than a year on, those aeroplanes are less than a month away from being deployed operationally. Karl Drage sat down with Sqn Ldr Steve Courtnadge, Officer Commanding A Flight (BAe 146), 32(The Royal) Squadron, and Wg Cdr Dan Storr, Officer Commanding Operations, RAF Northolt, to find out about the acquisition and how the Royal Air Force plans to utilise them.
“It’s become a bit of a pet project for me, to be honest,” confesses Sqn Ldr Steve Courtnadge. “I was in the MoD when we realised we were going to need to try to bring Hercules back to the UK to allow us to build up some of our Tac AT (Tactical Air Transport) capability back in the UK, because we’ve spent a lot of time in theatre now. What we need to do is to rebuild some of the core skills of the C-130 Force. So we were trying to think about what the best way would be to bring a C-130 back to the UK and still deliver in theatre. There were a few key requirements, the main one being let’s make the solution as simple as possible.”
32(TR) Squadron already uses two BAe 146-100 models, known as the BAe 146 CC Mk2 in RAF parlance, for the transportation of members of the Royal Family, Government Ministers and senior military leaders. Prior to his posting to MoD, Steve was one of the squadron’s pilots on the type.
“So, having flown the 146, I knew there were some freighter variants of the 146. We floated the idea around for a bit, but it soon became apparent that we were going to need to move both freight and passengers, so that’s when we moved on and started to look at the QC-variant (technically ‘Quiet Conversion’ but more commonly referred to as ‘Quick Change’).“
The QC infrastructure enables the aircraft cabin to be reconfigured in a matter of 30 minutes or so from an all-passenger layout to an all-freight layout, or a hybrid of somewhere in between.
These initial discussions were all taking place a couple of years ago, since when Steve left that post and returned to 32 Squadron at RAF Northolt, somewhat ironically as the man in charge of the flight that would operate these new aircraft.
He picks up the story: “The procurement was signed off in December 2011, the project team purchased the aircraft in March 2012 – which is actually pretty quick – and placed them with BAE Systems for conversion to meet military entry standards and to add a defensive suite. The aircraft’s been in that programme for a while, and the first one has popped out – we’ve got one sitting just out there – and we’ll start training on the aircraft on 25 March.”
Only five BAe 146-200QCs were ever built, with the two the RAF has acquired last operated by cargo carrier TNT. Two of the other three remain in use with Titan Airways, while the other is in storage. In RAF service, they’ll be known as the BAe 146 C Mk3.
32(TR) Squadron’s CC Mk2s, ZE700 and ZE701 flew for the first time in 1984 and 1985, while the two C Mk3s, ZE707 and ZE708 are a fair bit younger with first flight dates in 1993 and 1991 respectively. Despite this difference in age, the C Mk3s are considerably older in terms of cycles on the aeroplane, coming in at roughly double that of the CC Mk2. Steve is quick to point out that the CC Mk2s are particularly low-cycled and thus this disparity is of “No concern”.
In addition to the MoD’s long-term planned equipment programme, the Treasury also has a reserve set aside to rapidly fund equipment solutions for ever-changing operational demands. Quoting the MoD’s own website, “UORs deliver the speed and flexibility needed to adapt and respond to requirements specific to particular operational environments and emerging threats”.
“Because this purchase has taken place under a UOR, we haven’t gone through the normal procurement process,” Steve explains. “The aircraft obviously had a civilian clearance to fly under CS25 but because we now want to operate it within the military, we need the MAA (Military Aviation Authority) to issue a military RTS (Release To Service). This requires translating the civilian clearance into a military format.
“The concept of what we need to do with the RTS is, it’s essentially a civilian aeroplane, and we’ve just bolted a few bits and bobs on to it. The way we’ve operated the CC Mk2 the whole time is that we’ve operated it and maintained it in accordance with civilian practises. When we bought the C Mk3s, we’ve gone to the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) with the modifications that you’ll see on the aeroplane and have said, ‘If we were to provide this solution to you as a civilian aircraft, would you approve it?’ They’ve turned around and said yes through a ‘statement of satisfaction’. So the project team has now gone to the MAA and effectively said, ‘The CAA are happy with it, here’s our evidence, please go ahead and approve the aircraft.’ That’s just the procedure we’re going through at the moment, and there’s no reason to think that that won’t happen.”
While it might not sound a lot, the addition of the two new aircraft represent a 100% increase in the size of 32(TR) Squadron’s BAe 146 fleet, which has necessitated a commensurate increase in pilot numbers, but even for those already serving on A Flight, there are a number of differences between the two variants that flight crews must be aware of.
“When we were going through the process of identifying which of the QCs we were going to buy, one of the main reasons we got these two were because the cockpit layout was as similar as we could get to the CC Mk2. What we didn’t want to do was burden ourselves with a whole load of additional training, and we’ve largely achieved that.
“The key thing to remember is this is the same aeroplane type. The way we’ve approached the whole of the training construct is that the guys have gone through a course to fly the generic 146 and so in order to fly the Mk3, they only need to complete a small amount of differences training before the operate the aircraft. If we were civilian pilots, we would have a type rating on the 146, and could fly the 100, 200 or 300 series so we are actually providing a little bit more training than our civilian counterparts.
“So our training package involves some ground school, where they’ll get taught the standard things they need to know as a pilot, for instance, the weight limitations are different between our two models, some of the flap limitation speeds are different and the handling is a little bit different, but not that much.
“We’ve also got a simulator package that allows us to practice operating with the aircraft systems that are different to the CC Mk2. So we sit down, we go okay, so this has EFIS (Electronic Flight Instrument System) whereas the CC Mk2 just has PFD (Primary Flight Display) screens, we have analogue engine instruments in the CC Mk2 and the C Mk3 has electronic, we have a different pressurisation panel, a different brake selector, a slightly different oxygen system. It might sound a lot but it’s nothing major; the systems are the same, its just the interface that’s different. What we then do in the simulator is to practice all of the emergencies associated with those differences.
“What that translates to is about an hour’s worth of study on the differences and a four-hour simulator session, shared with another person. I came back from that a couple of days ago and that’s worked really well.”
Steve and his instructors have benefited from some commonality between the CMk3 and another fleet operated by 32(TR) Squadron, as he explains:
“From an operator’s perspective, I would say the main difference at the front of the aircraft is the FMS (Flight Management System). We have Honeywell GNS-XLS in the CC Mk2 and we have the Universal FMS in the C Mk3. That’s the interface on which we generally drive the aeroplane around the skies, certainly when you’re at height. The fortunate thing is the Universal FMS is used on our BAe 125s, so we already have a ground training rig and we have pilots on the 146 that are ex-125, so I already have my subject matter experts in order to deliver an FMS training package. Next week we start our FMS training; it’ll be a little bit of ground school, little bit of training on the box – there’ll be a test on the ground-training rig – and then we move on to the final phase, which is the flying.
“There’s no reason to do an additional instrument rating test or aircraft handling check for the C Mk3, as a minimum we need to operate the aircraft in a benign environment – at the moment the aircraft are here, so that’ll be in the UK – and practice using the FMS. When both aircraft are eventually deployed out to theatre, the guys will do that same FMS trainer in a benign environment, probably from our deployed base in Bahrain rather than doing it in Afghanistan. I want them to see and practice using the FMS before they fly in a tactical environment. That’s how we’re approaching it from a pilots point of view. “
So in terms of differences between the CC Mk2 and C Mk3 variants at the front of the aeroplane, there are things to consider, but nothing that is monumental. The back of the aircraft, however, is quite different and the management of this has required some more significant changes in personnel.
“There were two roles with this aircraft when it was on the civilian register. The freight role used containers called igloos. These igloos are shaped around a passenger cabin, so they’re not the big ones you’d find in other cargo aircraft, and they go on six pallets. All of the igloos would be loaded by ground handling chaps, the two pilots would get in, close the doors and just fly it to the destination. The passenger role effectively fills the cabin with seats, allowing the aircraft to carry up to 94 passengers.
“When we started getting into this programme, we realised that these igloos, wouldn’t allow us to carry Dangerous Goods – anything from batteries through to ammunition – with just two pilots in the front; we were going to need to have someone else on board, and that’s why we’ve established the loadmaster role. That means we have two pilots and two cabin crew on the CC Mk2 and two pilots, one cabin crew and one loadmaster on the C Mk3. The first loadmasters to go through the C Mk3 course are experienced Hercules air loadmasters, and after that we’ll get loadmasters from other RAF Air Transport fleets.
“The problem that we then had with this igloo role is that it’s really not a sensible idea to be putting Dangerous Goods into a sealed container, because if it catches fire, you’ve got no way of getting in there. So although we’ve maintained the igloo role, we’ve also expanded that slightly into a flat-floor freight role, similar to what you’d see on a Hercules. The Mk3 has six pallets, and the loadmaster will supervise and monitor the loading process.”
The ‘Quick Change’ concept means the aircraft can be operated in four distinct configurations:
Role 1: Freight Role – Purely freight, up to about 10 tonnes including the ability to carry Dangerous Goods.
Role 2: Igloo Role – As we can’t carry Dangerous Goods, we won’t be deploying this role.
Role 3a: Passenger Role – All 94 seats inside the aeroplane.
Role 3b: Combi Role – Front part of the aircraft has seating for 54 people, and converted freight pallets in the back with specially-designed baggage bins for the troops’ kit.
While the procurement of the BAe 146 C3s is designed to free up a C-130 Hercules from theatre, the two types have quite wildly differing maximum payloads – the carrying capacity of an aircraft. A C-130J can carry around 19 tonnes of cargo, while the BAe 146 C3 is limited to ten tonnes. On the face of it, that might sound like an issue, but Steve explains why that’s not the case:
“Yes, this isn’t a Hercules. If you need to move a Land Rover, an engine or an outsized load, there will still be Hercules in theatre to move it. The vast majority of the tasking we’re doing out there is moving about 30 – 40 blokes and their kit, for which the BAe 146 C Mk3 is absolutely ideal.
“The C-130 loadmasters that we’ve got currently going through the training programme have literally just come back from Afghanistan, working on the C-130, and they know that this is the platform we need to move our people around theatre.“
32(The Royal) Squadron might only have a relatively small fleet of aircraft – six BAe 125s, four BAe 146s (including the two new arrivals) and two AgustaWestland A109s – but it is an extremely busy squadron:
“The Squadron is organised into three Flights; a Flight for the 125s, a Flight for the 146s, and a Flight for the helicopters,” Steve tells me. “Any of the pilots in my Flight would be able to fly either of the two marks of 146 but when deployed its logistically easier for us to task them onto just one aircraft. When they come back to the UK, they will then train on the remaining CC Mk2 until their next deployment.
Wg Cdr Dan Storr continues: “In the winter months in Bahrain we have two BAe 125s deployed to move people around the Middle East and into Afghanistan and around Afghanistan – senior leaders, politicians, those sorts of people. In the summer, historically, it’s been one 146 C Mk2 and one 125, because the 146 has better hot and high performance. When we get the two new 146s, effectively we’ll have four aircraft forward deployed, split between Afghanistan and Bahrain. For one squadron to have so many aircraft – and one flight effectively – forward is a real achievement.”
“Doubling the fleet size has corresponded almost exactly with a doubling of pilots, but compared to other squadrons, it’s still quite a taut number,” Steve is keen to point out. “For six months of the year I’ve got 75% of my aircraft deployed, and when the other CC Mk2 comes back to the UK in the winter months, that’s generally having maintenance for at least two months of the year, so trying to keep all of my pilots current and competent when not deployed is a challenge, but with the help of our SERCO engineering team, we’re confident we’ll be able to keep them ticking over whist they’re back in the UK.
The subject of maintenance is an interesting one. Once the C Mk3s have been deployed, it is not anticipated that they will return to the UK until operations in Afghanistan have been concluded. Steve explains how it will work:
“It’s quite a unique way of programming the deployment of aircraft; we don’t have any other aeroplanes in the RAF, certainly that I’m aware of, where we deploy them and maintain them and don’t bring them back until we finish operations in Afghanistan.
“We’ve instigated lots of additional engineering procedures, because we haven’t deployed like this before, specifically increasing the number of environmental checks on the aeroplane – just the normal things like filters and seals. Our Deployed Operating Base in Bahrain will be our engineering hub, and we will complete all of our maintenance activities here. We will have one C Mk3 based in Bahrain, to provide Air Transport capabability around our bases in the Middle East and one Mk3 based in Kandahar to conduct C130 type tasking. In order to balance out the hours on the crews and the aeroplanes we’ll be swapping the two C Mk3s out every couple of weeks or so.
“Our maintenance philosophy is ‘As forward as possible, as rear as necessary’. Although we will have a small number of engineers at Kandahar, it will just be to fix any minor snags.” We’ve broken out the maintenance events so that the aircraft are never spending too long in the hangar, but it will all effectively be carried out at Bahrain.
It is interesting to hear that despite the fact all of the Squadron’s engineering is contracted out to a private company in SERCO, on operations, not everyone is eligible to deploy:
“We have got a really good relationship with our civilian contractors at Northolt but we need a little bit more from them when we’re deployed on operations. “Not all of our SERCO engineers are Royal Air Force Sponsored Reserves, but all of those that deploy to an operational theatre are given military status and rank. Giving them a uniform to wear makes a big difference to the way they carry themselves, the way they’re treated and primarily gives us more flexibility as a military capability.
The current plan will see the first aircraft deploy to theatre the week commencing 8 April with the second aeroplane following around two weeks after that.
For Steve, who has been involved in the project one way or another since virtually day one, it must be hugely satisfying to be on the verge of sending the aircraft to work?
“The project has been achieved on a reasonable budget and, most importantly for a UOR, it’s on time. You know, you don’t get many military programmes where you buy the aeroplane and then one year later you’re ready to deploy them, so we’re quite proud of how that process has worked.
“It’s timely as well; we’re just about to start transitioning our forces in Afghanistan, it’s completely appropriate that we now replace our C-130 workhorses, in part, with a platform that was designed specifically for the current need in Theatre.”
As with any capability procured under a UOR, its future is not guaranteed beyond the purpose for which it was initially acquired, but Steve seems quietly confident that the BAe 146 C Mk3 will not come up short on delivery:
“It’s not for us to decide how long we’re in Afghanistan. We are there to fulfil the role laid out by the UOR and in doing so hopefully show what a valuable, cheap capability this provides, and if those above like it, we hope it will continue.”
Karl Drage extends sincere thanks to Wg Cdr Dan Storr, Sqn Ldr Steve Courtnadge & Sqn Ldr Richard Willis for their assistance with this article.