https://insideDIO.blog.gov.uk/2015/12/14/taking-to-the-skies-air-safety-on-the-training-estate/

Taking to the skies: air safety on the training estate

I’m Lt Cdr Bob Carter, SO2 Air Safety for the DIO’s Service Delivery Training Safety team, and when asked what I do for a living, I often reply: “I’m in the Navy, but I work with the Army, offering aviation expertise and advice to the Air Force!” Confused? Well read on… 

Lt Cdr Carter is in charge of aviation safety on the training estate. [Crown Copyright/MOD2015]
Lieutenant Commander Bob Carter, RNR - SD Trg SO2 Air Safety. Lt Cdr Carter is in charge of aviation safety on the training estate. [Crown Copyright/MOD2015]

I spent my naval career as an Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO), a relatively small cadre of some 70 officers and senior ratings. Contrary to popular belief, naval air traffic control is not standing on the flight-deck of a ship waving a pair of table tennis bats around. On an aircraft carrier, the ATCO’s role is to sequence the aircraft using the ship’s radars to ensure their safe launch and recovery. There is only 600ft of deck available, so every take off, landing, re-fuel and deck-move has to be accurately planned and executed. This is done in all weathers, day and night, and with the returning aircraft having only limited fuel remaining, it certainly focuses the mind.

Having served in the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious, plus numerous shore appointments at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset and RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, I retired from regular service in April 2013.

20121104 - Merlin helicopters from 814 Naval Air Squadron are pictured onboard HMS Illustrious during Exercise Joint Warrior near Scotland [Crown Copyright - MOD2012]
Merlin helicopters from 814 Naval Air Squadron are pictured onboard HMS Illustrious during Exercise Joint Warrior near Scotland. [Crown Copyright/MOD2012]
Over more than 30 years of service, I have acquired extensive knowledge of air traffic control matters as well as valuable experience of fixed and rotary wing aircraft operations. I am now putting much of that experience to good use as part of the DIO Service Delivery Training Safety team.

Learning the Lingo

 The post of SO2 Air Safety is the focal point for all air issues across the training estate. This includes daily liaison with the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), the RAF, Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) and the range staff themselves to deal with any emerging or ongoing matters. When I arrived in post it was a baptism of fire, as there were many matters that required urgent attention. One immediate hurdle was the language – it was soon evident that both the Army and DIO have their own sets of acronyms that have very different meanings to similar-sounding naval or aviation abbreviations!

Training Areas for aviation

Probably the highest profile task is managing the Air Weapons Ranges (AWRs), used daily by the RAF Typhoon and Tornado squadrons, as well as regular visits by the UK-based US Air Force F15, Osprey and Pavehawk aircraft. The AWRs are at Holbeach, Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, Pembrey Sands in South Wales and Tain, Scotland, for strafing and dummy bombing, plus Cape Wrath for live bombing runs.

Picture: RAF Typhoon releasing a Paveway II guided bomb at Cape Wrath [Crown Copyright]
RAF Typhoon releasing a Paveway II guided bomb at Cape Wrath [Crown Copyright]
The RAF provide trained Air Traffic Control staff for each AWR, but DIO is responsible for the infrastructure and the provision of a ‘safe place’ to train. This arrangement has led to some interesting interactions about responsibilities and funding, but regular communication between DIO Service Delivery Training HQ, the Range Training Safety Officers (TSOs) and RAF 1Gp has led to an improved understanding of the problems faced by both the staff at the sites and the users.

Chinook Mk3 operating within a Confined Landing Area [Crown Copyright]
Chinook Mk3 operating within a Confined Landing Area [Crown Copyright]
Much of the DIO estate provides good training opportunities for helicopter operations, either in support of ground troops or bespoke training serials. Air door gunnery and troop drills are common evolutions at many ranges and integration with ground training has led to problems in the past. As a result, regular engagement with JHC safety staff has highlighted many issues and I have been able to discuss and resolve these concerns with the particular range staff. 

Seaking Mk4s of the Commando Helicopter Force disembark 45 Commando on exercise in Scotland [Crown Copyright]
Seaking Mk4s of the Commando Helicopter Force disembark 45 Commando on exercise in Scotland [Crown Copyright]

Future developments

The introduction of Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) such as Watchkeeper and Desert Hawk 3 (DH3) has raised interesting issues about the use of the limited airspace available, but work is ongoing to expand its operating capabilities through minor changes to the airspace surrounding the Salisbury Plain Training Area.

Watchkeeper Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) on Salisbury Plain [Crown Copyright]
Watchkeeper Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) on Salisbury Plain [Crown Copyright]
Another area raising considerable interest is the recent emergence of commercially-available RPAS, or ‘drones’. The HQ has received many requests for their use on the estate, but the situation is complex. The Civil Aviation Authority has been keen not to over-regulate the use of these machines so that people of all backgrounds can enjoy them. However, the MAA regulations currently require that all such systems are approved and flown by appropriately trained personnel. Alas, there is currently no such approval or training in place for these small RPAS, therefore all flying related to any military application has been suspended whilst a review of the regulations is conducted.

Next year and beyond

One of my focuses for 2016 will be to obtain an improved ground to air communications capability across a number of ranges. There will undoubtedly be numerous new challenges in the future, but I sincerely hope that my role is successfully contributing in the maintenance of air safety across the training estate.

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