The RAF is placing some high-fliers in business schools to make them better managers

Why would an RAF helicopter pilot with 18 years experience of flying search and rescue missions want to spend 13 months with the business wonks? They say the boardroom is a battlefield, but it hardly compares with Bosnia or Northern Ireland, the sort of place where John Wrenn has been plying his trade since a teenager. Why, in particular, would he rub shoulders with civvy street students when the alternative is a place at the prestigious Shrivenham armed forces staff college which, with its renowned battlefield expertise, is regarded as the natural route to advancement in the Ministry of Defence?

At the age of 36, Squadron Leader Wrenn has taken something of a risk by taking part in a brand new Royal Air Force scheme to send a handful of recruits to university instead of the official defence academy. So this term finds him not in a cockpit but in the computer rooms and coffee bars of the Henley Management College along with two airforce colleagues, studying for a Masters in Business Administration.

They had to fight hard to get there, coming near the top in fierce competition for places at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, with more than 600 applications for 72 places. They then had a choice: continue on the normal route, dominated by military planning; or take an alternative degree at Henley, Ashridge, Warwick, Bath or Imperial College London. They had the choice of furthering their engineering skills taking a management course - the option they preferred.

Air commodore Peter Hilling, who is in charge of the RAF's leadership programmes, explains that, while the standard defence academy route is still the best choice for most aspiring administrators, the RAF also want higher management skills from the world of business and public administration and to offer career flexibility of a sort that may in the past have been missing, and hopes to retain more senior officers as a result.

"The course at the defence school is very much a course in teaching the guys about working in joint operations and dealing with the other services - preparing for operational theatres such as we have experienced in Iraq. There's a strong focus on operational warfare," says Air Commodore Hilling.

But this, he suggests, may not produce enough expertise in the business of management itself: the ability to manage big budgets and large, time-consuming projects such as the attempt to replace ageing Tornado aircraft with the multi-billion pound Typhoon project. "We do need people who understand up-to-the-minute business procedures. We have decided to find a small number of individuals, probably four or five a year to go off on relevant courses at university to give them these skills instead of going to the academy."

For Hilling, this experiment is a sign that the RAF is changing. "We take more free thinkers these days. We're prepared to think outside the box and look at different options. It's very exciting. We're not too sure how it's going to be received. The test for us is to ensure that when they graduate we then employ them in areas where they use these skills straight away. Interest in it is very high."

The courses are to some extent tailored to the RAF's needs, with project work relating to current MOD initiatives. The £25,000 courses are also compressed from a year and a half to just 13 months.

Wrenn is now considering a career in higher administration. "As a senior manager in the RAF it's not that dissimilar to being a manager in any other non-profit making organisation: there are issues of people management, financial management and so on," he says. "We're all run by money these days. It's more important that senior officers can sit round a board table and talk the same language."

His colleague at Henley, Wing Commander Dougie Dryburgh, a 37-year-old RAF administrator, says the arrival of the fliers has generated a bit of mystique on the course. They have already taken civilian counterparts up to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to have a look at the sort of thing they get up to. And his study of the business world is already helping put his own experience into context: "On a personal front it gives you the tools to operate effectively. Even after two months I can go back and be more useful."

The three of them - a fourth will join in January - have found it hard work, but enjoyable and no more arduous than normal military life. In some ways university is better the second time round, says Dryburgh. "The first time I was a student I was 17. Now, you have a different perspective. At 17 you don't really know what you want to do. It's much easier to study when you're interested."

Wing Commander Sean Ellis, a 37-year-old engineering officer with a Harrier squadron, joined up when he was 16 so this is his first chance at higher education. He says he is a product of the RAF and its traditional ways. "But what's happening around the airforce and around the MOD as a whole is getting far more involved with business practices and I felt there was something missing. I thought the MBA was a way of opening up my mind."

Even just a few weeks into the course he has found interesting cultural differences, not least the fact that women make up half the MBA course, compared with fewer than five per cent of the RAF engineers he normally works with. "Here there are a lot of guys around you with such a different background. There are cultural issues between servicemen and civilians - different outlooks and different priorities. A serviceman tends to be quite in your face, very direct. It's almost like a foreign land being here."

This is not the first time a civilian education establishment has met the needs of the armed forces. Cranfield University runs a Master of Defence Administration course, taking some personnel from foreign forces. But this is the first time the British forces have backed the idea on a systematic basis.

Professor Ian Turner, director of graduate qualification programmes at Henley, said the officers have had a positive influence. "They're a very 'can do' type of person who wants to get the most out of their courses. They're open to new cultural experiences. I know how much it means to them and how much they're putting themselves on the line in doing something which, in RAF terms, is risky for their career path."

He believes the MBA is a natural route for anyone wanting to do general strategic planning and says they should feel at home at Henley, which imitates the armed forces' staff training college. It aimed to offer the same leadership training to figures from industry and the public services. "I'm very hopeful that now the RAF have come, other branches of the services will see the value of this type of training," he says. A number of other universities will be looking on eagerly.