A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. The glossy brochures state that it is 'changing the face of air combat training'. Quite a claim. But, any engagement Discovery Air Defence – whether from inside the cockpit of your fighter, sitting behind an executive desk or getting elbow-deep in an airframe behind hangar doors – will quickly reveal that this is more than just a slick piece of marketing jargon.

Words & Photography: Rich Cooper / Centre of Aviation Photography

New Discoveries

There's a crop of pretty high profile of companies now offering contracted defence services, flying fleets of legacy third-generation types on a plethora of mission from operational ramps all over North America. So what makes Discovery Air Defence different?

With more aircraft and personnel than most air forces, more 'top guns' than their home nation's military, the industry's first multi-national contracts played out in three countries across two continents, multiple regulatory bodies satisfied and ambitious plans to become the first civilian operator of the F-16 Fighting Falcon to compete in the Fifth Generation pilot training arena, Discovery is as dynamic as the world of air combat itself.

The company recognised at an early stage that the aggressor-based air support to defence operational training (ASDOT) market was working well within North America, yet Europe had not really caught up with the benefits that ASDOT can bring.

Europe's longest standing defence contractor provider was BAE Systems, operating out of Wittmund air base in Lower Saxony, Northern Germany, flying aggressor and target-tug duties for the Luftwaffe. That company has been accused of falling into a complacency trap as it had operated the Luftwaffe contract for decades, first flying F-100 Super Sabres before moving to A-4 Skyhawks. But, when the last five-year contract went to tender last year, the ASDOT industry had shifted up a gear and appeared to overtake BAE System's desires to stay in the market. Observers have said it was like they just didn't want it anymore. DA Defence seized its chance and the differences that it is bringing to the table in terms of its own ethos and fulfilment are worlds apart as it looks to turn its first German step into a European marathon.

We re-wrote the rulebook. We take our business seriously.

Rolf Brandt is a progressive ex-Luftwaffe Tornado ECR WSO, retiring in 2006. Operating as Discovery's new Business Development Lead for Europe, Rolf's knowledge about the fighter pilot world and the defence contractor industry is as infectious as his enthusiasm for DA Defence and its potential over the Atlantic. 'The German contract covers 1,200hrs of air force, army and navy duties, with about 85% falling to the air force. We deliver this in line with the Department of National Defence safety guidelines as well as those of Transport Canada, for both aircraft operation and their maintenance, so the customer is getting the best of both worlds', Brandt explained, nodding to the almost unbelievable hoops that the company jumped through to get US and Canadian military and civilian certification (see previous issues of SKIES). Germany's own War Weapon Control Act further compounded this. 'We perform our own engineering, our own maintenance on our own planes – the full spectrum from top to bottom is all in our hands. We re-wrote the rulebook. We take our business seriously.'

A-4 Operations

The new European era became a reality in January 2015 when DA Defence commenced the five-year contract to supply the German military with FAC and aggressor training, target towing and naval protection profiles amongst other roles with an initial fleet of seven A-4Ns.

The first of these touched down at Wittmund in November 2014 as DA Defence geared up its operations and previous contractor BAE Systems ran its down. There was no honeymoon period of smooth transition as Discovery first hoped. BAE Systems provided a service up to 31st December and DA Defence starting its work 1st January in a cold, clean cut.

Global logistics supplier GTE acted a strategic partner in the move, on hand to demonstrate German industry and thinking styles, and Discovery now has 26 employees in the country. These include five highly experienced German pilots (three ex-Phantom and two ex-Tornado, all ex-BAE Systems employees). A sixth pilot is in the middle of being recruited and there are two Canadian pilots on standby for human/operational factors., whilst the maintenance lead has to be a Canadian lead under the stringent regulations.

The most challenging part contract is the demand of aircraft availability. DA Defence can be tasked with up to 12 sorties every day and it has to be able to provide six aircraft a day – an aggressive target that it is working hard to reach by matching its flight hours to an efficient maintenance schedule. Indeed, it is known that the fleet flew 174 hours in July alone. After a delay, it is hoped the seventh aircraft will arrive before the end of the year to aid reaching the target of six jets 'on the line'.

The Canadian head office maintains direct supervision, but with a welcome, well-managed light-touch policy. 'In the beginning the control was pretty tight but now, with normal duties and the results we are delivering, our Canadian friends are satisfied with what we are doing and the reigns are loose, all whilst overseeing that we are delivering the contact requirements' explained a company spokesman. 'We talk to Montreal once a week with our Chief Operations Officer, discussing any budget or solution requirements, but the trust is there and it's a very good working relationship. The message we have is that what we are doing here in Germany is correct.'

European Expansion

DA Defence sees a steady rise of its European defence business, with Wittmund being built up towards a solid platform for its future expansion. 'We will engage with the neighbouring countries to offer our services and it makes sense to grow organically with sustained, measured growth from Wittmund and we are looking at the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and Denmark' said Brandt. 'The idea would be that we would be able to service those countries and return to Wittmund after the mission. We don't want to stretch our resources too thin and then delivery below expectations, but even with a transit flight of 90minutes you have half of Europe within our reach. We have also had contact with Italy.

'Germany is a very risk adverse country. We have to provide absolute quality, to the world's highest regulations. We believe we owe that to the customer, and are confident that it will translate well to other nations'. Any future work would have to be a separate contract, and would have to be fulfilled with more aircraft.

The Canadian Factor

The enigmatic chief pilot at the company's Wittmund base is Elmar Besold, a fighter pilot to the core. Having also worked as chief pilot for the ambivalent BAE Systems, he was well placed to compare the service delivery of the two companies.

As a pilot going to work every day, Elmar has noticed a big difference over the BAE Systems days to the new dawn of Discovery. 'The thing that strikes the most is the level of motivation in the leadership. First of all it is a very flat hierarchy. If I need the boss of the whole company, I can just pick up the phone. Everyone is positive, always interested and we have very close communication ties.

'In the past, we would have one phone conference a week where things would be talked over but we would not be included in any decision-making process. The decisions made in the company were made from behind a desk and imposed on us – now we are part of the decision-making process, and we are asked. They value our opinion and feedback.

'Another big difference is the in-house cockpit upgrade. This has resulted in the best cockpit installed in any defence contractor asset anywhere in the world.'

Red Vipers

Whilst DA Defence continues its work in Germany under the gaze of other European nations, it has a clever mix of reality in its strategic approach to the future. It is aware that the advent of the F-35 Lightning II will see military training step up yet another gear, and DA Defence is ready. It is set to acquire up to 10x Block 10 F-16A/Bs from an undisclosed source, with the knowledge of the benefits such a platform would bring fourth and fifth generation fighter pilot training.

The company's approachable and sharp Marketing Director Garrick Ngai is relishing the prospect, but knows there is a little way to go. 'The F-16 is a US military asset so it comes down to State Department ITAR approval. It's a policy issue. This being resolved right now, with a valid reason, to a legitimate end user to fulfil a legitimate contract with American allies.' This wrangling has been going on for over 18 months and is understood to cover an initial fleet of four single-seat Block 10 A models and two B models, with plans for 10 in total.

'We are stuck in a chicken and egg situation' continued Garrick. 'The US State Department is saying that we can't really release this to you and approve the transfer because you don't have a contract, whereas our customers are saying I can't give you a contract because you don't have them yet'.

Whilst remaining guarded about what those future contracts could be, Garrick alluded that Discovery is looking to fulfil the next Canadian contract to provide F-35-level training capabilities with what he called 'a very high-end solution, with a very high quality product' when it submits its tender to the RfP in January 2016. Naturally, American companies are lining up to point the finger and obstruct this move, but Rolf Brandt added that this is an important process. 'We are happy that this is a stringent process. It keep us honest and we like to have this oversight because it will result in another water-tight process that our competitors can only aspire to.'

Of course, this could be another piece of 'marketeering' from this dynamic company, so it made good sense to talk to the end user, the customer. Sealing the stamp of German approval was the Commander of the Tactical Flying Group 'Richtofen' Lt Col Gero Finke. 'We have are very happy having Discovery here in Germany. There are great benefits of having them on the base from a briefing and debriefing point of view. It has proved to have a positive impact on our training. We profit from the synergy effects of the company having such good pilots, their experience counts, and we get on very well with everyone in the company. The A-4 is an excellent platform for our 'Red Air' presentation and there are talks of an even better, radar-equipped aircraft coming on line. This would be very beneficial for us for the future, especially when we step up our weapons training here at WIttmund and transition from a Tactical Flying Group to full Fighter Wing status next year. We look forward to a long future of working together in this excellent relationship.'

With such well-published regulatory scrutiny, it is not only delivering the customer's needs once airborne, but also keeping the jets airworthy to the highest standard that counts. Indeed, it's the height of this bar that DA Defence has set for others to aspire to.

Young, enthusiastic, hard working and talented are good words to be associated with when you've got an A-4 Skyhawk split in half and your elbows halfway down a jet pipe. Patrick Blois, a native Canadian from Halifax, Nova Scotia, is just that. He's part of the small team with a big punch that's responsible for the ultra high standards of maintenance. Patrick put the wrenches down to explain how it works. 'Since these are Canadian-registered aircraft, the laws require that they must be signed off by a Canadian national so I am one of three Canadian-licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers here at Wittmund.

'I arrived in Germany in November 2014. I moved my family over here too, moving to the nearby town of Willemshaven – my family think it's great, it's going well. The language has been hard but the people in the area know us now and we are all making an effort to bridge the language barrier.'

When Patrick arrived in November, BAE Systems was still clearing its desks. 'There was no real cross-over, it was all pretty hands off. We didn't even have access to the hangars or the ops building until late January so we operated out of some of the military shelters initially.

'We're in frequent contact with Discovery HQ in Montreal on daily basis, giving a status of all of the aircraft. Indeed, all of our bases do the same, a daily reporting of fleet-wide stats. These jets are high maintenance (highest time is around 4,500hrs, the lowest around 2,000hrs), certainly more than the Alpha Jets we have, and even adding oil to the engine is a two-man job. It's not difficult, but it has to be done right. We can do everything here except we ship out our engines to Safe Air of New Zealand for overhaul. In terms of our hardware, we have specialists on target-tow equipment and there's a number of us qualified to work on the dummy bombs. We fly the target-tow we also use on our Alpha Jets, so it is very familiar.

'The customer expectation to provide six aircraft a day with seven available is hard. Right now it is difficult – a lot of these aircraft haven't flown for years. Indeed, aircraft 367 was sat dormant for over a decade in the desert but we have hit the targets. There's a lot of catch up right now and they are getting better - we have had five aircraft in the air at once and a sixth serviceable. However, you quickly burn the hours on a serviceable jet before it hits phased inspection times, so when we get our seventh aircraft and the jets are more serviceable we will be able to more efficiently rota the fleet so there's always one in phased maintenance rather than the current situation.' Indeed, this serviceability versus availability conundrum will be somewhat alleviated with the delivery of the seventh aircraft, whilst it is thought that an operational fleet of around 12 aircraft by the end of 2016 is considered the optimum number to delivery the aggressive requirements.