“When Voyager flight operations began my Sponsored Reservist colleagues and I immediately felt part of the 10 Squadron ‘community’ of pilots – when we are wearing our Sponsored Reservists uniform we are part of that RAF family”, says Iain Cullen, Director of Flight Operation, AirTanker Services.
Having joined the Voyager programme from BMI as Head of Crew Training in June 2011, Cullen took over the reins at the helm of AirTanker Services Flight Operations team from his predecessor James Scott in April this year. Three-months in, his passion for his role, the RAF and Voyager, is immediately evident.
“When I left BMI I was General Manager Flight Operations and people couldn’t understand why I was leaving.
“But I came to AirTanker because it was unique, because it was fresh and because of the association with the RAF- all these words pop out. I wanted to be part of it.
“BMI was a great company, I loved it but I needed a new challenge and I haven’t regretted my move for a second - the buzz is still very much there”.
As Director of Flight Operations, Cullen and his team, straddle the line between civil and military aviation. As part of the AirTanker operation, the mixed civilian and RAF embedded team supports the tasking and operation of the core military fleet and Voyager Squadrons.
But AirTanker Services is also an ‘airline’ operation in its own right, directly tasking a civilian aircraft and its own pilots and cabin crew in support of troop and cargo movements.
“We’re bringing together two worlds” he continues, “not simply to the point that they touch but to the point that they interface and it’s that bit in the middle that I find so fascinating and which is what makes this programme so different”, he says.
And it is Cullen’s experience in the civilian world that is a major asset to the Voyager programme now in both its military and civilian guises. This includes more than 13,500 flight hours and training experience, for the large part gained during his 28-year stint at BMI, flying the Fokker F27, Douglas DC9 and Shorts 360, through to the Boeing 737, before moving to the Airbus A320. This was followed by more than a decade at the controls of an A330.
“I wasn’t ever interested in fast jets – I always wanted to fly big aircraft” he says. “The A330 is a great aircraft. It’s brand new, in production and a current technology in the commercial world - not something that is reaching the near end of its life second hand from a commercial airline.”
Securing the go-ahead to begin air-to-air refueling with Tornado in May, Voyager is able to carry 111 tonnes of fuel. It does so without the requirement for additional fuel tanks, which means its’ cargo hold and passenger capacity remain un-checked. In its configuration for the RAF, it can carry 291 passengers, eight NATO pallets or a payload of 43 tonnes. It can also be set up to provide a 40 stretcher medical evacuation capability.
“It [Voyager] represents an amazing step change of capability compared to legacy platforms”, continues Cullen, “it’s the only aircraft of its type certified to deliver air-to-air refuelling, air transport and aero-medical evacuation simultaneously.”
And naturally, given Cullen’s introduction to the programme, he also emphasises the part the state-of-the art Voyager training programme has in AirTanker’s service offer to the RAF. “Training represents a huge part of the programme and in delivering it we go beyond that middle ground where the civilian world meets its military counterpart into areas historically occupied by the military.”
This includes the role that Sponsored Reservist pilots are currently playing in support of AAR training. The team includes a mix of former RAF pilots, turned civilian A330 and AAR/MRTT specialists and test pilots, knowledge that is being imparted through AirTanker Services’ simulator based and airborne training programme.
His role at the head of the Flight Ops team in support of an RAF programme, if not the RAF itself, represents the culmination of something of a personal ambition for Cullen, whose father flew with the Fleet Air Arm before going into the commercial world.
“My father passed away when I was four years old and I grew up wanting to follow in his footsteps. I worked throughout school so that by the time that I left I had enough money to start working towards my Private Pilot’s Licence and then at University, I joined the University Air Squadron, which in many ways was good training for a role as a Sponsored Reservist.
“The advantage for me was that by the time I left University I had around 180 flying hours – half of those gained with the RAF flying a Bulldog from RAF Newton over Nottinghamshire.”
And it is this underlying understanding and appreciation of the RAF, reinforced through his SR role, that Cullen is drawing on to steer the AirTanker Services Flight Ops team through a period of rapid acceleration and growth in its service offer.
Having begun air-to-air refueling sorties with Tornado in May, Release to Service on Typhoon is expected later this summer. The build-up of aircraft also continues to progress at pace with AirTanker taking receipt of Voyager 06 at the end of June.
“We’re currently going through a period of growth from start-up, with our first few early operational flights, towards our full service date in 2016 and the steady operational state that comes with it.
“My immediate focus is on managing this transitional period and growth as we move towards that established operational state – the change management piece.
“No doubt there will be challenges but if we get the relationship right, the communication right within our own team and with the customer, I remain confident of meeting them head on and of delivering a high quality and highly professional service to the RAF.”