Friday, March 30, 2012

Canadian air force looks to poach pilots from the RAF

OTTAWA — Faced with a shortage of pilots, Canada’s air force is turning its attention to Britain and is looking to hire out-of-work military aviators from that country.

One has been hired so far, with another 20 to 25 skilled pilots and eight other personnel to be enrolled in the Canadian Forces sometime this year.

Britain is undertaking significant reductions to its defence budget and the Royal Air Force expects to cut 5,000 personnel over the next five years. Among those will be 170 pilots who are in various stages of training.

But that could provide a windfall for the Royal Canadian Air Force, which is looking to scoop up some of the laid-off pilots, according to documents obtained by the Citizen.

“Royal Air Force pilots are renowned for their advanced skill levels and many have trained or had experience with the Canadian Forces throughout most of their careers,” the documents produced last year point out.

“As part of this process, these individuals would eventually become Canadian citizens,” the documents note. As a result, Canada gets a significant benefit of skilled and experienced personnel who require minimal training, according to the military.

“Successful skilled ex-RAF enrollees will join the (Canadian Forces) in a phased approach over the coming four years,” Capt. Jean-François Lambert explained in an email Friday. “The goal is to achieve a swift and direct impact to address skilled personnel shortages by attracting candidates who require minimal conversion training.”

The first ex-RAF pilot was enrolled into the RCAF in November and the service expects to accept another 20-25 pilots and eight air combat systems officers this year, he added.

It is unclear how many ex-RAF pilots Canada hopes to eventually hire.

Last year the Citizen revealed the air force was not training enough pilots to meet its needs while at the same time it faced a wave of retirements as well as the recruiting of skilled staff by commercial airlines.

Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps, the head of the air force, had told Vice Admiral Bruce Donaldson, the vice chief of the defence staff, that he could not produce the 125 new pilots he needed each year, according to a Defence Department document leaked to the Citizen.

To fill part of the gap, the air force had asked its retired pilots to rejoin the service.

Canada’s air force is also facing what it calls an “experience gap.” It has recently recruited members with limited experience and a large number of members who are close to retirement. What it doesn’t have are enough personnel with a mid-range of experience who can perform both operations and conduct training.

The initiative to recruit former RAF personnel “will help stem personnel shortages and mitigate our experience gap,” noted Lambert.

The Canadian government has significantly increased the pay and benefits for the military over the years. But like a number of employers, the air force is facing the loss of baby boomers who are reaching the end of their careers.

At the same time, civilian companies such as Air Canada are recruiting members of the RCAF.

The RCAF has also had difficulties attracting personnel to other aviation jobs.

Last year, the Citizen reported that the service was launching a drive to find more flight engineers for search-and-rescue helicopters as it struggled to fill those ranks decimated by retirements and recruitment of highly trained staff by private firms.

The exodus of flight engineers has been building over the last several years, with a 2010 air force report warning that such personnel levels were “dangerously low.”

That situation could become even worse as over 60 per cent of the air force’s flight engineers are in a position to retire with pensions, air force officers have warned.

Flight engineers play a critical role on the helicopters, operating the rescue hoist, helping guide the aircraft as it manoeuvres in confined areas, and performing the job of an inflight mechanic.

A Canadian Forces “Tiger Team” report in April 2010 highlighted the problems, noting there were only 12 operational flight engineers available to support the search and rescue mandate for the main search and rescue (SAR) units.

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