MAKICHUK: Can Canada's once mighty RCAF be saved?

Billie Flynn spent nearly 40 years pushing the boundaries of modern technology in fighter jets.
Billie Flynn spent nearly 40 years pushing the boundaries of modern technology in fighter jets.Handout photo

Legendary RCAF fighter pilot and test pilot Billie Flynn was asked in a recent podcast interview with popular aviation site The Merge if he had a magic wand, what would he do to help save the Royal Canadian Air Force.

During the interview, dubbed “Canada’s Air Force crisis,” Flynn did not pull any punches. A straight shooter, both in a jet cockpit or as an air force vet, he referred to a recent leaked report in the Globe & Mail. Commissioned by Canada’s Department of National Defence, the report assessed the country’s small and rapidly aging CF-18 Hornet fleet may not be able to meet its commitments.

Prepared by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a well-respected British think-tank, it was funded by the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) and classified as “Not for Public Release.”

Among its conclusions is the RCAF fighter fleet, entirely comprised of CF-18 Hornets — a mix of decades-old F/A-18A-B models and more recently acquired ex-Australian F/A-18A-Bs — “is not credible in a NATO context against many of the higher-end mission sets.”

The RCAF also has international obligations to fulfill to NORAD. In that role, just 36 of the RCAF’s CF-18s are equipped with contemporary-standard AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars.

The report’s author, Justin Bronk, cited additional concerns aside from aging equipment, asserting the RCAF fighter force is “suffering from low morale, high rates of departure among instructor pilots and a shortage of maintenance technicians, impairing its ability to meet defence obligations to allies.”

A complete and utter disaster. And they didn’t want you to know. They would rather fill your heads with climate change propaganda.

And by the way, that report comes on the heels of Canada’s formal US$74 billion decision to acquire 88 F-35As earlier this year, a process mired in politics for more than a decade, notably impacted by decisions taken by his highness, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said before assuming office in 2015 that Canada would not buy the F-35.

Flynn would point out there are only 50 fighter pilots left to fly the remaining F-18s, which, at the end of their service, will have flown for 50 years.

That’s right, 50 years! An incredible record, for any fighter jet airframe.

Canada’s F-18s will undergo costly upgrades via a program known as the Hornet Extension Project (HEP), allowing the aircraft to operate in civil airspace out to 2032 and the switch to 5th-generation F-35s.

Ironically, as soon as the F-18s are fully upgraded, they will be moth-balled!

Canada's CF-18s are rapidly aging.
Canada's CF-18s are rapidly aging.RCAF photo

Lieutenant Colonel Billie Flynn served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 23 years.

The Commanding Officer of 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron and Commanding Officer of Canadian Task Force Aviano during Operation Allied Force, he flew combat missions over Kosovo and the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

During his 40-plus years of flying, Flynn tested advanced fighter aircraft around the globe.

The first pilot selected to fly the CF-18 in 1984, his flying experience includes fighter and test pilot with the United States Air Force, Navy, Marines and NASA.

Recently retired from Lockheed Martin as the senior F-35 test pilot, he acted as global spokesman for the 5th-generation F-35 program.

Asked how to save the RCAF by The Merge Flynn was succinct.

“No more mistakes from this point on,” Flynn said.

“One, I would open the doors to reservists. Reserves in Canada are not like the reserves for the National Guard or any of the National Guard capabilities in the United States. None at all like that.”

“And I would open up to reservists and I would bring in the Air Canada, the WestJet pilots, the guys who are working in the local areas. Cold Lake and Bagotville are not garden spots, but men and women are going to come back to fly fighters.”

“And I would open that up right away because that's going to keep the long-in-the-tooth fighter pilots around while I feed the transition (to the F-35).”

The second thing Flynn would do, is “clean house.”

“And what do I mean? Well, look, the military itself has been rocked by sexual harassment scandals. Moms and Dads come to me all the time and go, ‘Why would I send my kid to join the military? They can't clean up their own act.’”

“I'd clean house and I'd be squeaky clean moving forward. I'd focus on capability and show the Canadian people that it's an upstanding military, as professional as everyone wants it to be. And then maybe I could turn the recruitment problem around.”

Retention is a huge issue in the RCAF. Veteran pilots are leaving and it is largely becoming a crisis.

Unlike the USAF, which is now offering US $600,000 in bonuses over the next 12 years to address pilot shortages (the bonuses range from $15,000 to $50,000 per year for additional service) Flynn says money is not the answer.

“We all talk about what keeps men and women in, is it culture? Is it the good squad and spirit?”

Billie Flynn says airline pilots could be lured with reservist missions in RCAF fight jets.
Billie Flynn says airline pilots could be lured with reservist missions in RCAF fight jets.CBC photo

Amid that foregone conversation, Flynn says the focus should be on retention — doing everything to keep pilots from becoming “airline bus drivers” and making sure that “being on squadrons and being fighter pilots and serving their country was something that they wanted to do.”

“There’s no silver bullet,” said Flynn. “It’s going to be ugly.”

“The 100th anniversary, the centennial's coming up, Canada's going to celebrate it for a year. I'm super proud. Again, my Dad was a fighter pilot. I did my time. It'll be an enormously proud time and it'll be a really difficult time to watch the fighter force struggle along until the F-35 shows up.”

Still, Flynn expressed a glimmer of positivity, insisting the F-35 will bolster the RCAF.

“Why would you want to go be a bus driver when you can go fly a $100 million freaking spaceship and be King Kong in an F-35?”

“Why wouldn't you want to do that? And then go be an airline guy somewhere down the road. But go be a fifth-gen god out there. And I think that'll be a good recruiting tool in the beginning and the secret will be to keep the men and women in the military if they stay for F-35.”

Like Flynn, we can only hope things will turn around at some point. It certainly can’t get any worse under the Trudeau government, or can it?

“I'm such a believer in the men and women that serve in the Air Force that I grew up in,” said Flynn.

“I flew fighters for 40 years and I flew around the world and all the amazing opportunities I had in my career start because I grew up in that Air Force and what I learned from my IPs, my squadron mates, my mentors, my leaders and I credit every one of the great opportunities I had to the upbringing I had in that Air Force.”

“And I'm such a believer in it. But they've got to go do some work. And I've got to see strong leadership from this point on. Not a bunch of bean counters or pencil neck geeks in there as leaders.”

“Fighter pilots leading and convincing men and women to stay and turning that force around and fighting the politicians to keep the piranha feeding frenzy from chipping away capability.”

Strong leadership. Imagine that.

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