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Forces' flying lessons to be privatised

BRITAIN is about to to take a huge step towards privatising the armed forces with a pounds 300m contract to train all three services' helicopter crews. It is the Ministry of Defence's biggest-ever contract other than those for the procurement of weapons, equipment or building works. It is also an important step towards unifying the way the three services operate.

The contract, which will run for 10 years, will provide the Army, the Navy and the RAF with 32,000 hours of basic helicopter training per year. Students will be entrusted to a private contractor for nine months to qualify as helicopter pilots, navigators and aircrew. The contractor will run all aspects of the training school, including providing food and accommodation. It is therefore known as a "multi-activity contract", or, as MoD officials, aware of its scale as well as its responsibility for sustenance have dubbed it, "the Big Mac".

The Defence Helicopter Flight School will be based at RAF Shawbury, near Shrewsbury, where the RAF currently trains its helicopter pilots. The students, including pilots who will already have learned to fly light aeroplanes, will do 60 hours' training on the single-engined helicopters.

Then those destined for the RAF's bigger helicopters will graduate to the multi-engined aircraft. The Navy pilots, who have to land on ships in gales, will do more advanced training in the single-engined variety, and the Army crews, who may end up flying Apache attack helicopters, will leave to get their final training on Army helicopters at the Army Air Corps centre at Middle Wallop.

To provide the 32,000 hours of flying time needed each year, the contractor will need 40 single-engined and 11 multi-engined helicopters. Tomorrow, evaluation teams from the three services will begin a "fly-off" between several helicopters which are candidates to check they are suitable. But the final choice will be made by the contractors. In order to keep costs and overheads down, it will be in their interest to select the most proven, reliable and "student-friendly" helicopter. Instead of training on military helicopters, as now, the crews will learn the essentials of helicopter flying on aircraft which are widely used as flying ambulances or to photograph traffic jams.

The MoD expects to choose from three potential contractors in May. It is understood to be keen to make all its major decisions on time, in case of an early General Election. The privatised school is due to be up and running by April 1997. By that time, the contractor must have all 52 helicopters in service and have trained the instructors on them. Some instructors will be civilians employed by the company; some will be service personnel, seconded to the school.

Privatising the armed forces is not a new idea. Until the Indian Mutiny the defence of India was in the care of a Crown Monopoly - the East India Company, which ran its own army and was considered to have better armed and appointed ships than the Navy. And in the Crimean War, at the high water mark of Victorian capitalism, a private contractor offered to tender for the siege of Sevastopol, undertaking to capture the Crimean port by a certain time or face penalty charges.

But it is only in the past few years that privatisation has reappeared. Private firms already contract to run services for the MoD at all three service helicopter training schools - Culdrose for the Navy, Middle Wallop for the Army and Shawbury for the RAF. "Big Mac" will expand the scope of privatisation and bring them all together.

Acquiring the helicopters, however, is only a one component of the costs. The contractor will also have to keep them flying and run the establishment, although there will be a service officer - the Navy, Army and Air Force will take turns - in nominal charge.

There are three potential contractors: FR Bristow Serco, an alliance of the firms who already help train Army and Air Force pilots, Bond and Hunting, and Shorts.

The aircraft which the successful contractor might use include Bell helicopters, built in Canada, McDonnell Douglas helicopters built in the US, and European consortium "Eurocopters", plus the Italian Agusta. The aim is to teach aircrews of the future "basic flying" - much as driving schools use basic cars to teach driving. Once qualified, after their 60 hours, the crews will progress to more advanced training and then to the helicopters they will probably fly in active service: Navy and Air Force EH 101s and Army Air Corps Apaches.