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International Test Pilots School (ITPS) Canada has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) to acquire a fleet of FA-50 light combat aircraft.
The London, Ont.-based company earlier this year launched the International Tactical Training Centre (ITTC) to provide advanced fighter pilot training with a first cohort of students from the Royal Malaysian Air Force for fighter lead-in training (FLIT). Since then, it has signed a contract with the Royal Thai Air Force for Fighter Weapons Instructor Course and began discussions with other militaries about customized programs.
Much of that is done with a fleet of five Czechoslovakian Aero Vodochody-built L-39 C Albatros trainers, as well as three L-29 Delfins and two Hawker Hunter T75s. But as the company positions to offer lead-in fighter and advanced tactics training to air forces introducing next-generation aircraft, acquiring a trainer with radar, electronic warfare and self-protection systems, as well as embedded simulation capabilities, became a priority.
“It is a short list of aircraft that fit the bill,” said Giorgio Clementi, president of ITPS.
The FA-50, a combat variant of the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle advanced trainer, has been on Clementi’s radar for some time. ITPS has provided training to the Indonesian Air Force, which operates the T-50, and has trained KAI test pilots and flight test engineers. The school has also trained Republic of Korea Air Force test pilots. “We have one T-50 pilot with us right now training as a test pilot,” he said.
The MOU was reached after discussions between the two companies around ITPS’s longer-term business plan and allows the company to “pursue and promote” the FA-50 as part of its future services offering to prospective clients.
Clementi intends to acquire between eight and 12 aircraft within the next three years, though the exact number would be contingent on the requirements of a tactical training program the company is currently pursuing, he said.
The FA-50 will eventually replace the L-39 fleet, but ITPS expects to operate both aircraft for a period to provide customers with multiple cost options. “We have already upgraded [the L-39] cockpits with colour touchscreen displays. We’ll be integrating a helmet mounted display and an embedded simulation system . . . by the end of 2021,” he said. “We’ll have a two-tier solution to capture all market segments. The L-39s are getting long in the tooth but they probably have at least another five years of life left in them.”
KAI and Lockheed Martin offered a variant of the FA-50 for the U.S. Air Force advanced jet trainer competition, which was won in 2018 by the Boeing/Saab T-7A Red Hawk. Clementi said that while ITPS looked at several options to meet its growth plan, the “T-50/FA-50 are great aircraft and they exactly fit the bill for what we want to do.”
The company has opted for the FA-50 over the T-50, despite the higher cost for the fighter version, because “it is a question of capability and what the customer requires,” he explained. “So far, for the project we are pursuing, the customer requires a full-on fighter capability. So that is what we are aiming for.”
The fighter variant also offers the ability to emulate various weapons systems and includes a datalink to share information between aircraft and with simulators in the training centre. “We would like to have a live, virtual, constructive capability so [the aircraft] can be networked into our simulator centre on the ground,” Clementi added. “We have eight aircraft stations that could be networked as a force multiplier. You are then flying the simulated aircraft against the real aircraft. This is the way most air forces are going.”
Asked if the FA-50 purchase would position ITPS to pursue the Royal Canadian Air Force future FLIT project, which is currently in the requirements definition phase, Clementi admitted “that would certainly be a possible target for us, for sure.”
The greater opportunity may lie with aggressor or “red air” training support. In recent years, more and more militaries have begun exploring contracted adversary and threat replication as a way to mitigate the high cost per flight hour of newer aircraft
“I think the U.S. Air Force [Combat Air Force Contracted Air Support] contracts have really opened up other air forces’ eyes to what is possible, and also to the cost savings and the efficiencies of using contracted services as opposed to trying to operate everything and using up valuable flight airframe hours for training,” said Clementi.
ITPS has initiated discussions with potential partners about using the FA-50 for that purpose, he acknowledged, and “there is definitely opportunity for growth in that segment.”
While it eyes the future, ITPS is also adapting technology to adjust to the present. COVID-19 travel restrictions have forced the company to move its training syllabus online to accommodate foreign students. Both the ITTC and the civilian test pilot and flight test engineer training programs are conducting ground school courses through video lectures to reach across multiple time zones.
The next step is simulated cockpit training, said Clementi. “We are looking at how we can conduct virtual training online with simulated aircraft, with instructors and students in different countries, but in the same simulated cockpit.”