Lessons from the Past

DND photo GD2015-0065-13

A CF-18 Hornet soars above the clouds over Iraq before commencing the next mission during Operation Impact, 23 January 2015.

Training at the Edge: The Canadian Air Force’s Transition to the CF-18, and Lessons Learned for Canada’s Next Generation Fighter

by Richard Shimooka

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Richard Shimooka, MSc., is a Defence Analyst for the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. Richard has an abiding interest in military aviation, and he is a previous contributor to the Canadian Military Journal.


In the early-1980s Canadian Forces pilots and technicians were introduced to their new fighter aircraft, the CF-18 Hornet. A slightly modified variant of the US Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18A, it promised a near revolutionary improvement over the three aircraft it was replacing, the CF-5 Freedom Fighter, the CF-101 Voodoo, and the CF-104 Starfighter. One area where there were major hopes was a significant improvement in the air force safety and availability record. The Starfighter was a notorious aircraft in this regard, difficult to fly in its demanding roles, and it suffered from numerous technical issues. Consequently, 111 of the 238 aircraft originally purchased were lost due to accidents or failures during its operational life with the Canadian Armed Forces. Yet, hopes for a dramatic improvement were quickly dashed. By 1991, its selected replacement, the CF-18, had been involved in a string of tragic crashes, leading to the deaths of 11 pilots. It was only in the 1990s that a significant improvement with respect to the CF-18 flight safety occurred. It should be noted that early operational attrition is an unfortunately common occurrence with new operational fighter-type aircraft. Every air force faces teething issues with the introduction of a new aircraft, even if it has been in service with other countries. With the impending replacement of the CF-18, however, managing an effective transition will be essential in order to reduce the risk of attrition, and to ensure that the reborn Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) maintains a high level of capability.

With this in mind, this brief study aims to examine the air force’s historical transition to the CF-18 in order to understand some of the potential weaknesses that surfaced, and to provide some consideration for Canada’s future transition towards a next generation fighter. Certainly, a crash or any major mishap is rarely the result of a single cause; it is usually a combination of factors. However, inexperience, in combination with inadequate or improper training, can lead to greater overall risk that may exacerbate a potentially dangerous situation. The CF-18’s early history certainly bears out this reality. This article will focus upon two areas relating to a new fighter fleet: the ability of the Canadian Armed Forces to obtain corporate knowledge from the supplying government and to effectively employ it, and the importance of effective and appropriate lead-in training.

The CF-18’s Transition History

At the time of its introduction, the CF-18 represented the leading edge of a new generation of aircraft from the ‘agile-supersonic revolution.’ Based upon the experiences of Vietnam, the US military developed a series of aircraft with outstanding maneuverability and impressive thrust-to-weight ratios designed to win aerial engagements. They were also significantly easier to operate than earlier aircraft. Cockpit layouts, including a new generation of heads-up and multifunction displays, provided pilots primarily with information relevant to their current situation. Fly-by-wire controls, essential to keep aerodynamically unstable aircraft under control, made flying significantly easier for pilots. Canadian evaluators of the New Fighter Acquisition (NFA) program to replace the CF-104, CF-101 and CF-5 quickly realized this, as retired General Paul Manson, former NFA Program Manager, recalls:

We sensed that this new generation of cockpit technology would greatly change a pilot’s workload. In the case of the Starfighter, a pilot would spend approximately 85 percent of his time on ‘housekeeping,’ i.e., just keeping the aircraft safely in the air. The rest of the time would be spent doing what the aircraft was designed to do: performing the assigned mission. We quickly acknowledged that, in the case of the F-16 and F/A-18, the numbers would be reversed, with housekeeping taking up roughly 15 percent of the pilot’s cockpit time. The rest was spent on the important mission-related aspects of flying.1

Prior to the CF-18’s introduction, the then-Canadian Air Force (CAF) had predicted its catastrophic mishap rate (known as Category ‘A’ mishaps) would be 5.6 crashes per 100,000 flight hours.2 This would be a major improvement over the CF-104, which experienced a Category ‘A’ rate of 18.5 incidents per 100,000 flight hours.3 The CF-18 predicted rate, it was believed, would be more in line with the other fighter aircraft operated by Canada at that time, the CF-101 and CF-5, which experienced rates of 5.68 and 6.74, respectively.

DND/CFJIC photo PCN-5098

A CF-104 Starfighter overflying the airfield at Decimomannu, Sardinia, which supported the weapons ranges in the area. Canada’s Starfighter pilots deployed there for weapons training on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, the expected safety dividend did not emerge. While the CF-18 was inherently safer to fly than the CF-104, its early attrition rate was significantly higher than expected. In the first eight years of operation, the Canadian Air Force’s loss rate was 7.14 aircraft per 100,000 flying hours.4 By comparison, the American mishap rate during this time frame was only 3.75 aircraft per 100,000 flying hours.5 In essence, Canadian Hornet pilots were therefore twice as likely to become involved in a major crash as their American counterparts.

There are several factors that may help explain this difference. A common view among a number of Canadian officials interviewed was that the comparison between CAF and the US Navy (USN) and Marine Corps (USMC) is misleading. CF-18s tended to fly more hours in low-level exercises compared to their American counterparts, in part because the Canadian aircraft were often closely based to their training areas and spent more of their actual flight time in the training environment. USN and USMC Hornets often had to fly longer flights in relatively benign flight regimes to reach ranges, or to transit from ship to shore facilities.

While greater transit time was a factor, it may not be salient. Although Canadian Hornets flew a substantial number of low-level training flights, such missions accounted for only two of the Category ‘A’ mishaps (see Table 1: Crash 1 and Crash 8). The majority of crashes occurred as a result of ‘human factors,’ where pilot error was determined to be a primary cause. These often occurred during take-off, or at medium-to-high altitude, where the pilots’ situational awareness was impaired in a way that caused them to crash into the ground. The USN and USMC appeared to experience proportionally fewer such incidents; over 50 percent of their Category ‘A’ mishaps occurred, due either to technical faults or mid-air collisions, based upon the data available to this author.6

Further corroboration of the difference between Canadian and US fighters can be found in the USAF’s statistics with respect to the F-16 Fighting Falcon. This aircraft generally flew similar flight patterns, although again, less in low altitude operations. The USAF’s figures indicate a mishap rate of 6.51 per 100,000 hours for the first decade of service.7 While this may seem comparable to the CF-18, it should be noted that the F-16’s Pratt and Whitney F100-200 engine was notoriously unreliable at the time, and it factored into a disproportionate number of crashes. Once the engine failures are factored out, the F-16’s crash rate is around 4.7, or even lower.8

Based upon this preliminary examination, Canadian adoption of US flight training approaches might have helped to avoid some accidents and losses. Yet, the government decided not to purchase this package of information, and this can be traced to how the government decided to procure the CF-18. Normally, when a country procures military equipment produced by a company in the United States, it does so through the US Government ‘Foreign Military Sales’ (FMS) process. Here, the US Department of Defense purchases the equipment on behalf of a given foreign country, and then provides it, along with training and other aspects of continuing support.

Currently, FMS contracts include a non-recurring Research and Development [R&D] fee added to every unit sold, and an administrative levy of 3.6 percent is added to the purchase price, in addition to any long-term support contract brokered.9 Yet, due to the austere fiscal environment of the early-1980s, the Government of Canada was actively trying to reduce the cost of purchasing military equipment. To this end, Canadian officials eschewed the FMS approach and elected to purchase the CF-18 through Direct Commercial Military Sales (DCMS). In this manner, Canada bought aircraft directly from the manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, deleting the US military as an intercessor, with its attendant fees and associated assistance. Again, according to General Manson:

By dealing directly with the two short-list manufacturers, the Canadian government was able to negotiate fully executable contracts for both the F-16 and F-18 in an intensely competitive environment, which ultimately paid dividends in the final evaluation in terms of the number of aircraft purchased and in the negotiation of favourable industrial regional benefits to Canada.10

In particular, Canada was able to negotiate a lower than expected price on the F/A-18, which eventually allowed the purchase of an additional aircraft.

There were drawbacks to this decision, as Canada would not obtain American training and program materials as a single comprehensive package. The CAF instead developed an indigenous training syllabus, based on three sources:11

  1. Basic operational instruction and materials acquired in the contract with McDonnell Douglas;
  2. Doctrinal and tactical information obtained through informal contacts with the US Navy’s first F/A-18A training squadron;
  3. Canadian experience gained flying the CF-18’s predecessors.

However, this approach was not necessarily seen as a drawback. First, Canada had a strong and distinguished history of providing flight training, going back to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) of the Second World War, as well as the post-war training of numerous foreign nationals, an expertise which the air force believed still existed. Second, Canada would need to develop some parts of its training indigenously in any case, in part because CF-18s would undertake different roles than the F/A-18A. Finally, there was some question as to the value of acquiring the American training packages as, at the time of its consideration, Canada actually had more Hornets under contract than did the United States.12

Two CF-18s in formation during Operation ‘Impact’.

DND photo GD2015-0077-06

An initial cadre of pilots and maintainers were given instructional courses at the McDonnell Douglas facility in St. Louis, Missouri, on how to operate and care for the aircraft. All subsequent flight training was conducted at 410 Operational Training Squadron in Cold Lake, Alberta. There, McDonnell Douglas test pilots and maintenance staff trained the first cadre of Canadian personnel in operating and maintaining the aircraft. This cadre then became the first instructors for all subsequent individuals in the CF-18 pipeline. Unfortunately, the contract did not include information on doctrinal and tactical information with respect to the aircraft’s employment. For this area of expertise, the CAF relied heavily upon its strong informal relationship with the US Navy’s first F/A-18A pilot training squadron, VFA-125, in Lemoore, California. This unit provided 410 Squadron staff with information, documentation, and advice on the US Navy’s operational employment of the aircraft. These inputs were then ‘Canadianized,’ or adapted for the CAF- unique requirements, and were then provided to the staff pilots. This assistance proved to be invaluable in the development of Canada’s training syllabus.

Nevertheless, some pilots felt that that this approach did not provide them with all the necessary information. Several pilots recalled that they would return from joint American-Canadian exercises with binders of F/A-18 documentation under their arms, since they were unavailable to Canada.13 One document proved to be particularly valuable: the Naval Aviation Training and Operations Procedures Standardization Manual (NATOPS). It was designed to provide pilots with a complete manual of the best and safest operating procedures. The document was constantly updated as new knowledge was obtained, and it was credited with significantly improving flight safety within US service.14 The effects were quickly apparent, as one CAF pilot remarked:

Pilots sometimes mistook normal operation for a problem, and sometimes could not note critical information that would have aided in troubleshooting. At first, many ground aborts happened because guys didn’t understand the flight controls, INS, etc., and [either] mishandled them or couldn’t rectify a minor fault. An example is a frozen Leading Edge Flap—they are easy to avoid if you know what to do, and super easy to rectify if you know the procedure.15

Overall, these findings suggest that the CAF likely faced some difficulty in transition to the CF-18, although some ambiguity remains with parts of the data. The following section will attempt to provide greater context, to better understand where issues may have emerged.

Analyzing the CF-18 Crashes

The overall CF-18 Category ‘A’ incident rate is a worrying trend, but in itself, it is far too blunt a measure to understand the issues relating to the aircraft’s early history. An in-depth analysis of the thirteen crashes provides a much better sense of the problems faced (Table 1). Only one of the early CF-18 mishaps was primarily attributed to a mechanical failure. Of the twelve remaining, two aircraft were lost in a mid-air collision during basic fighter maneuvering. In this case, although the 1000-foot safety distance rule was violated, the accident cannot necessarily be attributed directly to a lack of proper training.

Num Date Alt Primary Cause Visibility Prev exp. Notes
1 4/84 M CFIT (sit awareness) Low Cloud CF-5 GLOC
2 6/85 NA Takeoff settings N/A CF-5 Secondary tech fault
3 5/86 Lo CFIT (sit awareness) Low Cloud CT-114 Somatogyral
4 5/87 Hi Failed spin recovery N/A CT-114 Secondary tech fault
5 9/87 Hi Maintenance error N/A CF-101
6 10/87 NA Take off technique N/A CT-114 Secondary tech fault
7 4/88 Lo CFIT (sit awareness) Low Cloud CT-114 Secondary tech fault
8 1/89 Lo CFIT (sit awareness) Low Cloud CF-104 Training Mission
9 1/90 Lo CFIT (sit awareness) Night CT-114 Somatogyral
10 4/90 Lo CFIT (sit awareness) Clear CF-5 Training Mission
11 4/90 Hi mid-air collision Clear CF-5
12 4/90 Hi mid-air collision Clear CT-114
13 4/90 Hi CFIT (sit awareness) Cloud CT-114 GLOC/Sec. tech fault

CAF Directorate of Flight Safety [1991].

Table 1- Early CF-18 aircraft crash causes16

Note: In Table 1, the altitude band of occurrence is expressed as ‘Alt’, and the pilot’s previous experience is expressed as ‘Prev exp.’.

The leading cause of catastrophic mishaps in the remaining ten incidents was the lack of situational awareness either just after take-off or in-flight, which resulted in a “controlled flight into terrain,” or CFIT. In most of those cases there was an additional factor that degraded the pilot’s situational awareness [sit awareness], or ability to control the aircraft. The most common primary cause for CFITs were either G-force induced loss of consciousness (GLOC), where a violent maneuver incapacitated a pilot who was unable to regain control before flying to the ground, or Somatogyral effects in low light situations. The latter occurs in absence of visual cues due to poor weather or low light, and the pilot can misinterpret his or her actual situation, occasionally leading to crashes. Of the remaining accidents, two involved an improper aircraft configuration as a major factor, with the pilot failing to apply a proper corrective procedure. In those incidents, better aircraft knowledge may have helped the pilot safely recover the aircraft. Such incidents accounted for seven of the crashes listed, and they are an aspect of operational safety that can often be addressed with enhanced training.

The CF-18’s early safety record also illustrates the need for effective fighter lead-in training. A disproportionate number of the accidents involved pilots who had only flown the CT-114 Tutor trainer and/or the CF-5. These aircraft were somewhat less demanding to fly than the CF-104, CF-101, and the CF-18 in key areas. Both the CT-114 and the CF-5 possessed rudimentary avionics, which meant that basic pilot skill was essential to fly the aircraft safely and effectively. The CF-101 Voodoo’s all-weather role added the requirement for significant skills in managing the aircraft’s avionics, and in flying extensively in instrumented conditions. Finally, the CF-104 was a demanding aircraft to fly, particularly in its low-level strike and reconnaissance roles. Thus, it is understandable that pilots transitioning to the CF-18 from the CF-5 and CT-114 experienced a higher crash rate than those transitioning from the CF-101 and the CF-104 communities. It suggests the need to provide pilots the necessary training to have very good general flying skills, particularly in a high performance environment, as well as the ability to quickly and effectively synthesize situational awareness information from the on-board avionics and other sources. These findings are confirmed in the US Navy’s Flight surgeon manual:

Surveys have shown that flight experience does not prevent disorientation, but the incidence appears to be reduced with increasing experience. Current flying practice is helpful in several ways. A number of studies of repeated exposure to unusual motion have shown that both disturbance and counter-productive reflexive actions are diminished or modified in a productive direction as a result of repetitive experience with unusual motions.17

The manual goes on to state:

Instrument skills are highly dependent upon practice. Interpretation of instrument information is an intellectual function which demands integrating symbolic orientation cues from some instrument with digital information from others… However, with current aircraft instruments, the information provided may be far less compelling than the direct perceptual response to some unusual flight conditions. Yet, the pilot must use the intellectually-derived information from his instruments. By the time instrument scan information becomes second nature, the pilot may be unaware of many disorienting sensations because his control actions may be overriding these sensations, and he is also highly proficient in the use of his instruments.18

Certainly, the Canadian instructors were well aware of these dangers. Both McDonnell Douglas and VFA-125 personnel warned 410 Squadron officials of the potential dangers involved in this area.19 The CAF’s training approach attempted to address this issue, but it may not have been sufficient. Canadian Hornets still experienced comparatively more CFIT accidents related to situational awareness than the US: 53 percent of all Category ‘A’ Hornet incidents compared to approximately 20 percent, respectively.20 Moreover, half the US F/A-18 CFIT incidents occurred within training squadrons, while only two of Canada’s seven incidents occurring within the same environment. The difference suggests that the USN and USMC may have been more effective at instructing pilots with respect to avoiding CFITs.

There are mitigating circumstances. The difference in cockpit instrument technology from the CF-101, CF-104, CF-5, and the CT-114 to the CF-18 was quite significant. The previous generation of jets and jet trainers possessed mostly analog dials in their instrument panels, nothing like the digital displays with which to Hornet was equipped. This posed a significant challenge for new CF-18 pilots, as Craig Richmond, a 439 Squadron pilot remarked:

As the simulator instructor in Baden, along with watching and instructing pilots, in between training missions, I had the chance to spend literally hundreds of hours practicing all kinds of radar intercepts. I also took advantage of the fact that one of my co-instructor pilots was an ex-Voodoo navigator who taught me a lot of his ‘tricks.’ This was tremendously helpful a few years later when conducting low-level intercepts of [dummy] cruise missiles in the -40 degree darkness of the Arctic ~ I had had a unique opportunity to hone the mechanics of my radar and instrument flying skills in the simulator in this extremely demanding single-seat role.21

American pilots were at a less of a disadvantage: they had more experience with digital displays because several ‘fleet’ fighter aircraft prior to the Hornet possessed them, including the F-14A and A-7E. This may in some way partially explain the differences in the loss rates.

Since 1990, the air force has been able to significantly improve the CF-18’s flight safety record. There have only been seven Category ‘A’ incidents, with the lifetime mishap rate declining to 3.04 incidents per 100,000 hours.22 Even more impressive is that of those seven incidents, only four are attributable to human factors, with three being the direct result of a maintenance failure. The improvement in flight safety emerged due to several different factors. Significant effort was expended towards evolving the training process in order to improve a new pilot’s ability to manage multiple tasks and unexpected flight situations, as well as revised flight regulations that reflected a decade of lessons learned.23 This included the regular ‘Anti-G’ training in a centrifuge, which improved pilots’ ability to delay the onset of GLOC.

These policies can be attributed in part to a greater focus upon providing an authentic, comprehensive training approach for student pilot. Nevertheless, the air force still faces the challenges in this area. The 17 November 2010 crash of a Hornet was caused by a pilot who was disoriented by a sudden blooming effect in his night vision goggles due to his aircraft’s landing lights illuminating falling snow. The pilot believed he was descending quickly and ejected, which illustrated his inexperience with night vision goggles, and basic flight skills were key contributors to the crash.24 It reflects the need to prepare pilots for the rigorous and challenging demands of flying a modern jet fighter.

The experience of the Canadian Armed Forces pilots during the CF-18 transition highlights three areas that any future transition should take into account:

  • Incorporating new technologies to improve flight safety;
  • Developing a comprehensive, realistic lead-in training system, as well as high fidelity simulator systems; and
  • Ensuring unfettered access to all available operational, technical, and training materials, as well as a system to effectively synthesize that information into operations.

The following section will examine how these findings correspond to current trends in aerospace development.

Placing the CF-18 Transition into Context: Present Developments

Technological Advances

The first is the incorporation of technologies to improve flight safety. The F/A-18A design possessed a number of key design features that were markedly superior to previous generations of aircraft. Fly-by-wire controls, improved situational awareness through digital instruments and heads-up displays, as well as greater aircraft performance were key. These advances contributed heavily to a marked increase in flight safety in the transition between the CF-104 and the CF-18.

When the CF-18 entered service, fly-by-wire was a new technology: the F/A-18A and the F-16 were the first operational aircraft to feature it. Since then, digital control systems have proliferated, both on the type of systems they control and on the variety of aircraft that employ them. For example, The F/A-18E Super Hornet uses a Fully Automated Digital Engine Control system, (FADEC) on its GE F414 engines, which provides significant safety and engine performance improvements over its predecessor, the GE F404, that powers the CF-18.

© Boeing Image B14180 (msf13-0082-069)

The Advanced Super Hornet.

© Boeing Image c12-22831-13

The Advanced Super Hornet cockpit.

Perhaps the most significant development is advent of Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance Systems (AGCAS) for modern aircraft, which seek to prevent CFITs altogether. AGCAS technology is based upon two scientific developments from the 1990s.25 The first is the creation of an extremely precise (<30 meters) digital topographical database for the entire planet derived from the 1999 NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). It was three times more accurate than previous data. The second technology rests in the development of Embedded GPS Inertial Navigation systems (EGIs) that can locate aircraft with an accuracy of less than a few meters. Combined, they enabled researchers to create a system that continuously compares the aircraft’s position and flight path to the ground without relying upon active emissions.

There are several implementations of this approach, the most high profile being the joint NASA and Lockheed Martin program, which has been installed in the F-35 and F-16 fighter aircraft. The system intervenes in the narrow band of time before the aircraft becomes unrecoverable, but after a pilot’s reactions cannot recover it. Thus, the system cannot intrude nor do harm to the pilot, because he would not have been able to apply corrective measures to prevent a CFIT. It can do so with less than ‘6Gs’ placed upon the aircraft and pilot. Other aircraft manufacturers, including Saab and Dassault AG, have developed similar systems for their respective aircraft, illustrating their belief in the technology’s value to save lives and property.

Realistic Training Systems

Another requirement of any fighter program is a realistic training environment for pilots. In the 1980s, new CF-18 pilots came from a variety of flying backgrounds. The balance of evidence suggests that pilot inexperience and unfamiliarity with flying a high performance aircraft was at least a contributory factor in many incidents. This encompassed two parts. The first was a suitable lead-in trainer. Pilots that had transitioned from the CT-115 and the CF-5 accounted for the preponderance of Category ‘A’ incidents in the CF-18. Currently, the air force utilizes the CT-115 Hawk for initial jet familiarization and the CF-188B for operational conversion training, which has been largely successful in preparing pilots for the rigours of piloting the fighter.

DND photo CK2004-0065-20d by Corporal Robert Bottrill

Two CT-155 Hawks in formation.

Unfortunately, Canada will need to implement a new system to train new pilots. The RCAF’s CT-155 Hawks are nearing the end of their service lives and will require replacement within the next fifteen years. The budgetary constraints placed upon the acquisition of Canada’s next generation fighter capability will almost certainly result in a decline in overall fleet size and fewer training opportunities. This problem is exacerbated for the F-35, which does not have a twin seat variant to provide traditional instructor training.

In light of these challenges, a key focus for the RCAF must be to procure a new training aircraft that can provide a flight experience as close as possible to the fighter Canada selects as its CF-18 replacement. This suggests a relatively-high aerodynamic performance capability, as well as a cockpit environment that closely resembles the selected future fighter aircraft. If a sufficiently-capable training aircraft is chosen, it will also be able to effectively supplant some training sorties on the fighter aircraft.

In addition to aircraft, any successful training system will also require a significant investment into a synthetic training environment. New simulators and other aids can provide complementary training experiences for new pilots. Many of the advantages of simulators are already well-known. They can model a whole range of scenarios that would be otherwise impossible to replicate in flight training, such as in-flight emergencies, complex operational scenarios, and combat maneuvering. They can also reinforce specific skills, behaviors, and responses through repetition, before applying them on the aircraft. Finally, instructors can watch students real-time and immediately identify and correct their faults, which can be very difficult to accomplish in-flight.

However, there are several new developments that have enhanced the role of simulators in training new pilots. This includes linking multiple pilots together in a scenario, even in distant global locations. Opposing forces can also be piloted by instructors or students, which can offer valuable insights into operational usage. Finally, new simulator systems can provide feedback in ways that more effectively convey information to students. For example, EADS has developed a simulator package for the Eurofighter that replays sorties in ‘3D’ on a large screen, showing such variables as sensor’s vision or potential flight arcs at any specific instance. These developments can assist in improving trainee skills in a way not possible, even a decade ago.

© Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH, photo by Dan Kemsley

The Eurofighter.

© Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH

The Eurofighter cockpit.

Training packages and information transfers

Unfortunately, technology alone is not a panacea for all possible risks facing Canadian pilots, as training is an essential element of fully exploiting the potential of technical improvements. Canada’s decision not to purchase the US Government’s information as a package and develop its own syllabus, was a likely factor in the CF-18’s unusually high Category ‘A’ incident rate. Thus, a key focus for any transition is to ensure that Canada obtains access to all available training and operational data and materials in an effective manner.

There are a number of possible approaches available here, which reflect the greater multinational character of aircraft programs compared to what was available thirty years ago. In the case of the Eurofighter, there are a number of mechanisms that ensure a smooth transfer of information. Among these is a dedicated military-industry organization, the International Weapon System Support Centre. Its key function is “… the collation and distribution of information into the Common Source Database (CSB)”, which is the primary information node for all operators’ engineering and pilot data.26 The Support Centre’s functions are supplemented by a formal user group, which meets informally to discuss operational experiences and best practices, as well as coordinate industry support. Combined, these systems have effectively managed the multinational project’s information distribution systems.

© Lockheed-Martin Corporation, photo by Matthew Short

The Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II.

© Lockheed-Martin Corporation

The Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II cockpit.

The Joint Strike Fighter program has established a large training center at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona. The USAF will train most of its F-35 pilots at the base, and it will eventually house over 144 fighters. Other partner states and FMS customers for conversion training will also use Luke as their training facility to varying degrees.27 Many users, including Australia and the Netherlands, will only utilize Luke’s facilities during their transition to the F-35. However, it is expected that some partners will incorporate the Luke AFB facilities as a permanent fixture in their training pipelines.

The general availability of such structures and programs can be viewed as a major opportunity for Canada to ensure a safe transition for its next generation fighter. However, there are still risks if the RCAF fails to properly implement its training approach. In his Spring 2013 Canadian Military Journal article, the then-Director of Air Staff Coordination, Brigadier-General Dave Wheeler, outlined Canada’s proposed training program for new pilots transitioning to the CF-18’s next generation replacement.28 In particular, the RCAF would break up its current Operational Training Unit in Cold Lake, which handled the majority of pilot training after their initial jet familiarization in the Hawk. The proposed new system would offer conversion and combat ready training phases at either 4 Wing in Cold Lake, or 3 Wing in Bagotville, Quebec.

In addition, Wheeler outlined a vision where the use of simulators and training aircraft would provide the vast majority of conversion training. Certainly, such systems can supplant some ‘in-seat’ flight hours. However, the proposed RCAF approach would go significantly beyond that, and only provide in-flight training in the last phases of combat ready training. This would have the benefit of reducing the flight hours devoted to training even further, and would allow the squadrons to retain almost all aircraft for operational usage.

However, the proposed approach may repeat some of the failings of the original CF-18 transition. Any training system should incorporate the best practices of the original aircraft operators, rather than attempting to develop a unique Canadian approach without fully understanding the original program’s fundamentals. Furthermore, The RCAF would need to maintain two sets of training establishments, while developing a unique curriculum to minimize flight hours on operational fighter aircraft. It introduces a number of major uncertainties into the process, which could lead to gaps in pilot training. A more prudent method might see the RCAF becoming proficient in the original users’ training system, and then making alterations based upon operational service.


More than 30 years ago, Canada selected the F/A-18A as its replacement for the CF-104, the CF-101, and the CF-5. It held the promise of vastly superior capability and safety for its pilots compared to the previous generation of aircraft. While it certainly achieved the former, the latter was an elusive goal for the first decade of service. A combination of issues conspired to cause a higher than expected crash rate, with tragic consequences. With the RCAF facing the replacement of its fighter fleet in the next decade, these lessons should be understood and updated to reflect the upcoming transition. New flight safety technologies, more mature and developed approaches to information sharing, and improved simulator/training systems again hold the promise for improving the RCAF’s fighter force’s already-impressive flight safety record. It only remains to be seen if the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces can successfully manage such an implementation.

© French Air Force, Photo by DR, Image 2014_ASAP_150_020_016

Another possible contender for the impending replacement of the CF-18, the Dassault Rafale.

© Dassault Aviation - Alex Paringaux, Image IDB34C

The Dassault Rafale cockpit.


  1. General Paul Manson (retired). Interview conducted on 10 July 2013.
  2. Christopher Cushing, Expanding Commitments Shrinking Resources: Canadian Air Force CF-18 Review. Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. 1991, p.1.
  3. Department of National Defence: Directorate of Flight Safety Figures.
  4. Cushing, p. 1.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Data compiled from http://www.scramble.nl, http://fa-18.wikia.com/wiki/FA-18_BUNOs_Wiki, and http://www.joebaugher.com/navy_serials/navyserials.html.
  7. Air Force Safety Center, F-16 Flight Mishap History, Department of Defense, 27 December 2012. Accessed 16 July 2015 at http://www.afsec.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-150116-038.pdf.
  8. Air Force Safety Center, USAF Engine - Related Fighter/Attack Class A Flight Mishap Rates For Single Engine Aircraft: Department of Defence, 31 March 2013, at http://www.afsec.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-130522-027.pdf.
  9. New FMS Administrative Surcharge Rate, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 20 September 2012. Accessed 16 July 2015 at http://www.dsca.mil/PressReleases/by-date/2012/surcharge_lowered-092012.htm.
  10. General Paul Manson (retired). Interview conducted on 10 July 2013.
  11. Lieutenant-General Allan Dequetteville (retired). Interview conducted on 9 July 2015.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Personal communication with former Canadian Air Force CF-18 pilot. Conducted on 8 August 2012.
  14. Vice-Admiral Robert Dunn, “Six Amazing Years: RAG, NATOPS and More,” in Naval War College Review, Vol. 64, No. 3, (Summer 2011).
  15. Personal communication with former Canadian Air Force CF-18 pilot. Conducted on 8 August 2012.
  16. Christopher Cushing (1991), Directorate of Flight Safety figures and pilot interviews. The data presented is based upon the best information available, but may contain discrepancies.
  17. Naval Aerospace Medical Institute, U.S. Naval Flight Surgeon’s Manual: Third Edition, Department of the Navy, 1991, pp. 3-43.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Lieutenant-Colonel Laurie Hawn (retired). Interview conducted on 10 July 2015.
  20. US Navy/USMC serial data.
  21. Craig Richmond. Interview conducted on 21 March 2015.
  22. Department of National Defence, Directorate of Flight Safety figures
  23. Personal communication, with former Canadian Air Force CF-18 pilot. Conducted on 23 February 2013.
  24. Department of National Defence, Aircraft Occurrence Summary: 17 November 2010. Accessed 16 July 2015 at http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/article-template-standard.page?doc=cf188789-hornet-epilogue-flight-safety-investigation-report/hl6j9ibp.
  25. Lieutenant-Colonel Billie Flynn (retired). Interview conducted on 14 November 2014.
  26. Paul Smith Capabilities Manager, Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH.
  27. Robbin Laird Standing up the Luke AFB Pilot Training Center: A Key Enabler of the F-35 Global Operations Second Line of Defence Website, at http://www.sldinfo.com/standing-up-the-luke-afb-pilot-training-center-a-key-enabler-of-the-f-35-global-operations/.
  28. David Wheeler, “Canada’s Future Fighter: A Training Concept of Operations,” in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, (Spring 2013), pp. 68-73.