New pilot training scheme hits the ground running

The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) is rapidly increasing its pilot training capabilities. Erwan de Cherisey reports.

AW109M
Versatile: The AW109M is used for the advanced and tactical phase of the NAF helicopter pilot training curriculum. Picture: NAF.

NAF pilot training has come a long way recently following decades of neglect.

In July 2021, six new NAF helicopter pilots received their wings after completing basic flying training in the UK, at Draken Helicopter Academy.

Meanwhile, 22 of the force’s officers are currently undergoing basic flight training in-country, while additional personnel are being trained abroad.

It’s all a far cry from back in 2015, when pilot training capabilities were at an all-time low.

At that time, the NAF lacked a primary training aircraft following the almost complete withdrawal from service of its Van’s Aircraft RV-6A (a two-seat, single-engine, low-wing aircraft sold in kit form).

NAF officers were, thus, being sent to different countries for primary training – including Egypt, South Africa, and the US – but this caused standardisation issues and did not create enough new pilots to meet operational requirements. Consequently, a first attempt was made at solving the primary training aircraft shortage by procuring five Diamond Aircraft DA40NGs and a simulator, which were delivered in 2015.

While the DA40NG brought new capabilities, it was not capable of performing aerobatics, which was deemed a major shortfall, leading to a decision to seek yet another new basic trainer.

The Pakistan Air Complex (PAC) Super Mushshak was subsequently selected and 10 aircraft were ordered in 2016. Among the reasons for this choice was Pakistan’s willingness to loan four aircraft to Nigeria at no cost from December 2016 until October 2017.

In August 2017, the first five of the Super Mushshaks were commissioned into service with the 401 Flight Training School (FTS) at Kaduna. In July 2018, the remaining five aircraft were delivered.

The NAF’s initial ambition was to replace the DA40NGs with the Super Mushshak but, instead, it continues to use the Diamond aircraft for initial screening.

After completing basic training, pilots are selected to become fighter, transport, or helicopter pilots.

Future transport pilots stay with the 401 FTS and transition to the Dornier Do 228, while fighter pilots are sent to the 403 FTS in Kano to operate the L-39ZA.

Upon completing basic training, future fighter pilots are sent to the 407 Air Combat Training Group at Kainji, where they convert on to the Dassault Dornier Alpha Jet and go through tactical training, which includes air-to-air and air-to-ground combat manoeuvring.

The age and continuous combat use of the Alpha Jet fleet is posing increasing challenges as fewer and fewer aircraft are available for training.

The entry into service of the new Super Tucano may lead to a reduction in operational tempo for the Alpha Jet, which could prove beneficial to the training effort.

The replacement of the Alpha Jet is on the agenda and, while rumours of a potential purchase of Leonardo M346FA have spread online, these have so far been denied by the manufacturer.

In 2019, three L-39s Albatros trainers, which had been grounded, were reactivated by Aero Vodochody with NAF support in Kano. A contract for the overhaul of three other L-39s was then signed, with the aircraft arriving in the Czech Republic in July 2020. These are to be upgraded with new Genesys Aerosystems IDU 680 electronic flight instrument systems.

Another three aircraft were put through life extension at Kano and returned to service in December 2020.

Longer term plans could involve upgrading all L-39ZAs with the same Genesys avionics.

Aero Vodochody has also been pitching its L-39NG to the NAF.

In addition to its training role, the L-39ZA is used as an attack aircraft and has been committed to operations against Boko Haram and cattle rustlers in northern Nigeria.

NAF helicopter pilots are usually trained at the International Helicopter School of Enugu, which is run under a public-private partnership and flies several Robinson R66s. The school also trains commercial pilots but has a limited capacity, which is why the NAF continues to send pilots abroad for training.

Advanced and tactical training for rotary-wing pilots takes place at the 405 Helicopter Combat Training Group of Enugu on the AW109M. It includes tactical flying and weapons delivery training.

The AW109s are also used in combat duties, which affect their availability for training, although the recent delivery of six additional aircraft has provided some breathing space in that regard.

Erwan de Cherisey

Erwan de Cherisey

Erwan has been writing about military aviation matters since 2008.