7 mins read

Human Performance and the RAF

Typhoons Rising

Learning from within

This is a blog about the lessons learnt from within the armed gates of a working RAF base. We were here to learn with/from RAF Coningsby’s Force Development Squadron and hear of their approach to Human Performance.

 I’m not sure about you, but when I was afforded this opportunity to meet with the teams/individuals who work in Combat Air, Typhoon Force – referred to in one communication as “our busiest capability, Attack Air,” I jumped at the chance. I knew this was going to be different!

I had no idea what to expect and as the date (11th January 2023) came closer, I became more and more nervous about the experience. Being honest, it does feel a little intimidating when you are receiving emails from high-ranking officials in the RAF that say ‘OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE’ on them, and you are requested to dress accordingly and bring your passport with you (finding an appropriate pair of trousers and shoes was hard enough).

Entering the base and relinquishing something

As I approached the base, I slowed dramatically for fear of not wishing to break any protocol and have a weapon of some sort pointed at me! Perhaps I was making more of this than was actually an issue, but this was all very new and there was no way I was stepping out of line with loaded guns around.

We (a convoy of ‘Coach Developers’ from different sports) were greeted at the gates by one of the Physical Training Instructors (PTIs), responsible in part for keeping fighter pilots at their physical best. They led us to a briefing room.

Even in this short space of time and physical location, I’d noticed a change in our behaviour/demeanour. As we crossed the threshold, from one side of the fence to the other, I wondered;

“How quickly would we relinquish our natural ways and do as we are told/asked”

We were already surrendering something, be that our comfort to speak openly (not wishing to break rank, as it were) or to move freely within the confines (and controls) of the base. We were already putting boundaries on ourselves that may not have even existed (self-determined). Although I never asked, I wondered if serving personnel felt the same.

The Briefing

In the briefing we were given an introduction to some of the key protocols to be aware of, including the following:

  • “Round up” – which basically means someone from the group is missing and the word is out to ‘round them up’. We were firmly told to “do our best not to lose sight of the group and stay together at all times”.
  • “Wide awake” – which means there’s a suspicious package, which could be an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). We were told – “please don’t leave anything unattended or it may well be part of a controlled detonation”.

I forgot to mention, the room we were in at this point was one used for ‘top secret’ briefings, so all tech (smart watches, phones, laptops etc.) had to be left outside the room. And the room would be ‘swept’ for bugging devices prior to it being used again. This added to the vibe, acknowledging that we were in a privileged space for knowledge-sharing, only open to the few.

How the day panned out

It was now around 11am and we were due to meet with a series of serving personnel. Many of these have titles I didn’t fully understand and for the purpose of confidentiality, I won’t disclose the details here (other than those freely available via the RAF’s own website).

Our day was filled with back-to-back sessions, including; ‘planning for deployment of troops’ with Station Training Officer Nic Corrigan (and his PTI team), ‘aircraft insight’ with active (and on-call) Typhoon pilots and a visit to the airfield with an opportunity to get up close and personal with a Typhoon Jet (Flying FGR4 – these things are immense).

We had the privilege of meeting the training team from 29 Squadron, who specialise in ‘Quick Reaction Alert’– which is the ability to get a jet in the air and ready for engagement within xx minutes (yes, I left the time out as I’m not sure I can share, but let’s say it’s not much longer than it takes to boil an egg). And the humblingexperience of hearing from Group Captain Billy Cooper, who completed flying training in 2000, so had much to share.

Lessons which came to the fore

As I said earlier, we were here to learn about the RAF’s approach to Human Performance and share between our worlds. Here’s my take on what I learnt:

Resilience (battle hardiness and expanding the bubble)

It’s a jagged and moving line. Recruits are not of the same makeup as they may have been 5, 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Nor is the training for these individuals. There appears to be much more consideration for this when it comes to retaining new recruits.

What I heard (although these exact words weren’t shared) was that resilience can be the outcome of exposure to trauma (repeated micro and at times macro trauma). But this line is jagged, as each person’s tolerance is different; it’s not as if the same challenge effects all of us in the same way and its not as if all of us recover as quickly as each other. People need their individual space and time to recuperate. But how do you do this on mass with a workforce that needs to be more resilient to the elements of their job than most?

What I did glean is, it was ‘uncertainty’ that became the downfall of many. It wasn’t the trauma or the challenge, but the unknown or not knowing, the anxiety, stress or even boredom that comes with this. The uncertainty proved to unsettle troops, particularly new recruits. Priming troops with simple coaching questions seemed to help, such as:

  1. What is the situation?
  2. How does it affect me?
  3. What can I do to control for this?

This approach dealt with the ambiguity which had been distressing for some. Finding certainty and with it something to anchor. The longer people were in service, the less this was a challenge, with some referencing:

“Everything is the same (how we deal with situations), it’s just the latitude and longitude that’s different.”

It seems gaining battle hardiness and expanding the bubble over time is key.

Coaching (for performance not failure)

It takes around 7 years of training to get to a place to be able to fly the typhoon in combat situations. For some, it’s at this stage where cracks may appear and they can be lost from the programme. Pilots expressed firmly the value of ‘performance coaching’ and how having access to this may save some from dropping out – “we may lose our best pilots if we didn’t have this resource.”

“Every flight is a test, you can fail. Two fails and you’re out. At any point you can be removed. This takes its toll”

Just like any organisation and its staff, the RAF has a finite budget and its ‘fighter pilots’ are stretched for time (more than most). This is where the PTIs may be the answer. Station Training Officer, Nic Corriganreferenced a desire for:

“Unlocking the coach in the PTI.”

What I didn’t fully appreciate is, the challenge of the PTI is compounded by the fact that they have such small windows of opportunity to work with fighter pilots. To train them physically (and mentally) for development and recovery. These windows exist between pre-flight planning, inflight training, debriefs and simulations (oh and eating/sleeping). And the PTI often has to meet the pilot where they are. So to maximise their role in keeping the pilot at their best, the team are looking to unlock their own skills as ‘coaches’ and bring this to their interactions with the pilots. Coaching in small moments!

In this context coaching is seen as an investment in ‘performance before failure’ (not because of failure). There is a desire to swing the pendulum back toward the pilot trusting themselves ‘to do’, and away from ‘seeking reassurance’. Their approach to coaching considers how they may enable success more often, rather than avoid failure.

Debriefing (it’s 80% of the learning)

“The live event is important but 70-80% of the learning is in the reflection on the experience.” However, the pilot debrief is unconventionally (for those in business or sport at least) focused heavily on what went wrong. That’s not to say positives aren’t spoken of, however when things go wrong in the air, people can die. Therefore, it is here the energy is spent. So what does this mean for the feedback experience? Some quotes from trainers and pilots below help offer context:

“It’s not personal” – it’s important that feedback is couched with this phrase and deep understanding. That it is not personal and it is about a need to get to the point quickly, without some of the niceties we may find in other worlds. So yes, a ‘thick skin’ or an appreciation that feedback is not intended to harm is important for the pilots.

“Know what to look at and what not to” – the debrief has the potential to cover everything in minute detail, from getting dressed to the landing. So it’s important to know what is the most relevant stuff to review and what can be left.

“Humility and credibility in pilots and staff is key for receipt of feedback” – if the pilots cannot be humble enough to hear negative points of view, there is a problem. Equally, if those delivering feedback have no credibility in the eyes of the pilots, then we have other difficulties.

Time is at a premium so there isn’t luxury to look at everything (the good or the bad), as pilots need to recover, replenish, rest and be ready to fly again relatively quickly.

Culture (it’s ‘just’)

Throughout the day the phrase ‘a just culture’ came up, quotes around this from various personnel that stood out to me included:

Acting correctly in a timely manner….I’d rather my team do the right thing slightly later, than the wrong thing quickly.”

“There is a need to remain calm and professional in testing times”

Reacting in challenging situations can be dangerous in this world. Perhaps the most poignant reflection was that from Group Captain Billy Cooper:

“Wouldn’t it be great if people came forward with near misses so we could avoid the crashes….what we want from pilots is a willingness to learn with humility…..don’t be the pilot you think you should be.”

This last quote was shared with a slight smile. I can only imagine there have been times when ego and a desire to be the best at what you do in the air has perhaps gotten in the way of doing what’s right and safe (having the right attitude is a deal breaker here).

So ‘a just culture’ perhaps is where ‘employees’ are responsible for the quality of their work, the systems they have designed and the behaviours they display. They openly report their faults and vulnerabilities as they find them. Nothing is hidden or undisclosed, there is a shared accountability.

In closing

“Human failure drives us,” – it’s the catalyst for learning and development, to mitigate for it in the future.

Big thanks to Chris Porter, who somehow manages to get us into these spaces. Thanks to the team at RAF Coningsby, particularly Nic Corrigan Flt Lt, Station Training Officer, Force Development Squadron (and the PTIs who guided us throughout the day). And thanks to the pilots and training team of 29 Squadron too. I’ll leave you with the provocation that brought about this visit:

“What air force am I handing over?”Nic Corrigan, Station Training Officer.

So I ask – What workplace are you handing over?

Kurt Ewald Lindley – privileged to have learnt from beyond the armed gates.