The Influence of Helicopter Operation on the Airforce An Ingredient for Defence Review

by John C. Eggenberger, OMM, CD, PhD
July 2003

This opinion piece was stimulated by an article by KD Munro, “The Little Airforce That Could

In the early 1970’s the Air Force was tasked to conduct helicopter operations of the Army and Navy. These were new roles for the Air Force, and it called for the reallocation of resources, training and equipment – to the point where now more than 50% of our Airforce flying operations are carried out by the helicopter fleet.  This situation is yet another symptom of a huge imbalance of Air Force assets caused by a lack of attention by successive Governments. Also, in and of itself this information might not cause fluctuation of heartbeat. But, should the view be taken that a nation’s Air Force must be able to dominate, or significantly contribute to the domination of an airspace – either at home or abroad, at some time or another – then eyebrows might start to rise at this proportionality, and its potential influence on Air Force doctrine.

These thoughts led to the following examination of current Airforce assets and the potential consequences of its current posture. The Airforce’s inventory is a matter of public record: the information in Table One below was extracted from the Department of National Defence website. Columns 2 & 3 summarize an allocation of pilots (assuming two pilots per cockpit) throughout the fleet.

Table one

  Number of
Number of
Arcturus 3 12
Aurora 18 72
Buffalo 6 24
Challenger 4 16
Cormorant 15 60
Dash 8 4 16
Griffon 86 344
Harvard ll 24 48
Hawk 21 42
Hercules 32 128
Hornet 81 162
Polaris 5 20
Sea King 28 112
Tutor 22 12
Twin Otter 4 16

Note 1)   Not included are person requirements for Headquarters, other flying personnel and so on.

From Table One can be drawn several conclusions, but the focus here is the nature of the Air Force pilots’ ethos, and its influence on air doctrine.

By the term ethos is meant the spirit of community, which generates a  “pattern of expectations” for individuals in a group.  This pattern of expectations is derived from a groups’ common experience – and it is these expectations that set the benchmark conditions for success. Individuals within a group seek to emulate their peers, who in turn work to “meet expectations” as called for by operational success. An ethos also induces sets of values and beliefs for the individuals in it, but in the limit, it is the day-to-day, day after day activity that generates the ethos.  For pilots, if the day-to-day, day after day experience is to conduct air domination flying operations, then their ethos is of a certain character.  Should the day-to-day experience be to conduct heavy lift air transport operations, then those pilots ethos is somewhat of another character.  Obviously then it is the aircraft type, and the mission trained to – and executed in flying operations – that contribute to the form of a particular ethos.

The forgoing is important because it is the largest group of pilots in the Air Force that provide the bulk of the leadership cadre, and the ethos of this large group generates an overall orientation for decision-making. Of consequence, sometimes a group’s ethos does not permit a full range of informational inputs for decision-making.  More often than not, forces outside the influence of the prevailing ethos are needed to cause variations on decisions from this source.

Table Two below was designed to illustrate the point; this pie graph uses the data from Table One.  Clearly the helicopter pilots flying the unarmed Griffon in support of the Army, and the Sea King – supporting the Navy form the largest pilot subgroup in the Airforce today (42% of all Air Force pilots are helicopter qualified only) – and as a result has the largest influence within the pilot cadre.

Table Two

Aircraft type distribution

Aircraft type distribution

All this to say, from Table Two it is clear that numerically, the dominant sub-group in the Air Force is today formed by rotary wing pilots, and the largest of the rotary wing sub-group is flying the unarmed Griffon.   Of the fixed wing pilots, the multi-engine group looms next large – with air dominance pilots flying the Hornet coming up a poorly placed third.

And further, it is the formation of Squadrons that also tilt the overall ethos of the Air Force towards the ethos of the rotary wing establishment.  For example, from the DND website it appears that there are at least seven Griffon Squadron’s and perhaps five Hornet, each squadron with a Lieutenant Colonel – promotion to higher ranks thus more likely from the rotary wing group than for those that belong to the air dominance team.

Now that the bulk of Canada’s pilots fly helicopters, a career to Lieutenant General in the Air Force can be achieved without ever becoming fixed wing proficient. One effect of this change on the overall ethos of the Airforce is as follows: it may no longer be thought by the opinion leaders in the “pilot tribe” that control of the air is crucial to Canada’s welfare. Rather for this large group of pilots – it is assisting the Army that becomes paramount. And this outcome is derived from the mission of the unarmed Griffon, which is to support the Army in its movement. But, troublesome in the extreme to some, is that the Army controls the land battle, and the Airforce in support has little or no influence on that battle. It is the Army that has the executive control of strategic and tactical decisions, not the air force. Without this controlling responsibility it is difficult to understand the need for a career system for this role that enables promotion to high rank. An Air Force Griffon qualified LCol. will never command an army battalion, nor will an Air Force Sea King qualified LCol. ever command a ship. And, these folks can go on to be General rank, and never have commanded a fully functioning operational Squadron.

It may be useful here to point out that in the US Army most helicopter pilots are employed as Warrant Officers for a period of 20 years – a few of these pilots are commissioned officers – these folks go on to command Companies/Battalions etc. so that their influence upon the ethos of the army and the battle field is felt. The Canadian Air Force does not follow this path, none of the Canadian pilots generate decisions associated with Army ground operations, they are responsible for flying proficiency, aircraft safety and maintenance – they are told where they go and what they do (the Air Force folks can” suggest”, but not decide) – the Army controls what the Air Force does with the helicopters.

Moreover, a considerable shift of training and “careering” has occurred within the Air Force. Where once it was imperative to assure fixed wing competence to “wings” standard for everyone, thus enabling graduates to move back and forth between many aircraft types – now this aspect of the Air Force ethos is not so evident. One result of the current flying training/career system is that once qualified, helicopter pilots seldom successfully transit to fixed wing operations. It is understood by most in the “stream” that once in the helicopter pipeline, it is seldom to the individual’s advantage to retrain to fixed wing.  And so, the helicopter pilot’s ethos naturally grows apart from the understanding that it is air dominance that will finally decide the day on the fate of the land battle; not helping the Army to maneuver – however important this task is to the Army.

Far reaching are the consequences of the helicopter pilots influence upon the Air Force.  This influence should be understood, since it is likely that this very large group will rule the Airforce for the next generation or two, maybe forever.  One consequence of this change in composition of the pilot group, along with its concomitant career emphasis on helicopter operations, could be that the Air Force would begin to experience difficulty in recruiting to the F-18 pilot stream.  It being obvious that career opportunities doing the F-18 job are less attractive than opportunities in the Griffon stream.

Another consequence of this situation might be that the means to assert air dominance might well be thought by the Air Force leadership less and less necessary for the nations’ arsenal.  It is this latter thought that causes most concern, because the decision to diminish the air dominance responsibility may not come solely from an examination of the nations requirements – but from the view of the largest and most influential group in the Air Force.  The nations need – which should be determined by a Foreign Policy and National Defence review – might well point to another doctrinal path than the one the Airforce is now on.

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