Despite the ongoing debate over their cost and relevance today, aircraft carriers remain prized assets on the inventories of navies around the world.  China recently announced the construction of its first carrier – arguably the worst kept secret in modern military history – while work continues on the UK’s next generation Queen Elizabeth Class.

At the same time France’s Charles De Gaulle is in action enforcing the UN no-fly zone over Libya, proving quite clearly that carriers continue to have a major role to play, both symbolically and practically. 

An efficient flight deck is a vital component of the successful operation of an aircraft carrier, and this immensely technical and high-pressured job requires well-trained staff working with the best possible equipment. Gareth Evans caught up with Kev Mathieson, MRAeS, cfs, formerly of the Royal Navy, who is now the Managing Director of the UK-based Helidecks Training Solutions Ltd, to get an insight into what it takes to keep an air armada ready for takeoff.

Gareth Evans: What was your background with aircraft carriers?

Kev Mathieson: I have been involved with aircraft carrier operations since 1985, when I was a young Royal Navy Sea King Pilot. During my career I served as Lieutenant Commander Flying on HMS Illustrious, and in that role effectively ran the flying program, flight deck, air traffic services and ensured the ship was in the right place to enable air operations to commence. My last job in the Royal Navy was in Navy Headquarters, as the man responsible for ensuring that the three aircraft carriers stayed as ‘worked up’ as possible, the equipment was in good shape and the crew training was appropriate to the task and on time.

I have continued my role in the reserves since leaving. There is a shortage of carrier operations experience in the Royal Navy, so it made sense for me to stay on in some capacity.

“Providing the right clothing and protective wear for the right environment is essential.”

GE: What makes for an efficient flight deck?

KM: It’s a broad subject. Carrier flight deck operations are divided into two parts. The ship’s air department is responsible for running the flight deck and enabling the aircrew to arrive on target on time with the correct weapon fit, and then of course there’s the aircrew and aircraft of the embarked squadrons. Both elements interact very closely and it takes time to bring both together to peak efficiency.

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Flight deck efficiency rests on a combination of equipment, procedures and training.

GE: How do you strike that balance?

KM: The first thing a nation must ask itself prior to starting carrier operations is exactly what capability or effect it is looking to generate. Most nations instead start with the equipment first, which is the wrong way to go about things. For instance, it is no good fitting a state-of-the-art night lighting system with NVG [night vision goggles] capability if the aircrew or aircraft will never be able to use it.

GE: And once you’ve defined that capability?

KM: Defining the capability enables equipment, procedures and training to be developed. The efficiency of flight decks is a combination of all three – the right equipment that allows the tasks to be completed easily and safely, procedures that are easily understood and are safe, and the proper training of air and ground crews. The latter is probably the most expensive in terms of through life costs, and it is seldom 100% correct.

GE: Why is maintaining a flight deck training system so expensive?

KM: Training systems always lag behind due to the inertia in course-ware design and simulations systems, and sometimes because of a lack of understanding of the end user requirement. Maintaining a training system for flight deck crew is expensive.

GE: You mentioned simulation systems. How much use is made of them?

KM: Although some elements can be done by simulation, aircraft moving in confined spaces, marshalling, and tie down and maintenance procedures in the main can only be done by working with real aircraft, in a layout that resembles a carrier flight deck.

GE: So real experience remains vital?

KM: Of course. Working up a carrier flight deck team to peak efficiency can only be done with interaction with real aircraft. This is normally achieved by an air wing embarking ahead of an exercise or operation to work up together all the skills required to maintain high tempo deck operations. Bedding, feeding and inducting new squadron ground crew takes time, and for many this may be their first taste of life at sea.

Additionally being able to repair aircraft, move them to the correct position with the correct armament also takes practise especially in inclement weather and high sea states. This element of training needs constant feeding to ensure all the crews operate safely. Aircrew particularly can’t just turn up and fly to a deck. It takes some skill to operate day and night to a carrier flight deck and the correct simulation and shore based work up package is required.

When the normal churn that takes place with personnel swapping jobs within an air wing or vessel is added to the equation, ongoing training to maintain peak operational fitness is a constant battle and needs much care and attention.

GE: How big a role does equipment play in the mix?

KM: Equipment has to be well thought out and thoroughly tested for reliability. Providing the right clothing and protective wear for the right environment is essential and although this sounds obvious, few navies think this through. Temperate wear in a hot environment saps strength, is uncomfortable and has a huge effect on morale. The same can be said when operating in North Atlantic conditions and being cold and wet for an eight-hour watch. Lighting systems, both conventional and NVG, should reliable be too, and aid both aircrew and ground crew – and that’s not always the easiest of compromises.

Changing and updating these systems can be both expensive and time consuming, particularly if the initial fit is not up to standard.

“Flight deck efficiency rests on a combination of equipment, procedures and training.”

GE: Aircraft and technology have changed greatly over recent decades. How has this affected flight deck operations?

KM: Actually, little has changed overall in flight deck operations over the past 30 years for both VSTOL [vertical and/or short take-off and landing] and conventional aircraft. Although the aircraft have become far more sophisticated, the way they launch and recover is very much the same. However, the procedures are better thought through, and overall much safer, but that is a product of proper safety assessments that have taken place post accidents.

GE: Do you think that will remain so, or are there changes to come as defence threats evolve and technology develops?

KM: I believe that the way we launch and recover aircraft will, as far as the vessel is concerned, change little. The biggest changes will come with the next generation of fighter. Autoland systems, new more sophisticated weapon fits and, of course, the maintenance that is essential to keep the aircraft airborne will radically change the way squadrons are manned and operated. This will have a knock on effect into the vessel in terms of air operations provision, weapon supply and maintenance support functions.

However, on the flight deck, I don’t believe operations will change significantly until someone thinks of a radically new way to launch and recover aircraft.