On a fine Sunday morning about 12 years ago, Graham Farnell was propped up in bed with a laptop in one hand and cup of tea in the other. His wife had given up asking him when he was getting up – by now he was on his fifth cup and he was utterly absorbed on the task in hand, devising the Typhoon 30-Hour Challenge, an initiative designed to improve the availability of the Royal Air Force’s then fledgling fleet.
“At that time there were 19 aircraft at RAF Coningsby but aircraft availability was poor due to a paucity of spares and test equipment, as well as technicians and pilots learning how to operate the weapons system. All of which meant the average flying hours for an aircraft were in the region of 12 per month and that’s not a good return. The rule of thumb for a combat aircraft is you need about 25 hours per month.”
He was wrestling with the problem when he hit upon the idea of the 30-Hour Challenge – 30 hours being a stretch target. That Sunday morning Graham came up with a graph highlighting a series of initiatives that would improve availability levels.
“There was a variety of about 30 or so different initiatives and each was allocated half an hour or an hour in terms of what would it give the programme.
“One of the very first ideas was using motor-cycle couriers to transport the data bus analysers from the production line of BAE Systems at Warton down the motorway, so we could fix the aeroplanes.
"These would then be transported back again to the production line for the next day. It was expensive, but not as expensive as having the assets just sat there with pilots unable to fly them. It was an excellent collaborative partnership with BAE Systems.”
At the time, Air Vice-Marshal Farnell was a group Captain and his role was UK Project Engineer and Procurement systems manager within the defence Procurement agency.
“That job was the most difficult one I have ever done. It consumed every hour of my life,” he recalls in deadly earnest, hence the Sunday shift. “I had 275 people reporting to me and everybody was constantly queueing for my time. Finding any spare time was almost impossible which is why we ended up most evenings working on the whiteboards because the day was just absolutely manic.”
Within a few months, the Challenge was paying dividends. Aircraft were flying on average 27 hours per jet. And after 18 months some were even returning 30-40 hours. “At that point, we had to cut back because we hadn’t budgeted for that number of hours!”
AVM Farnell (right) during his NETMA days with CEO of Eurofighter Volker Paltzo
“You could say I was there at Typhoon’s entry into the Royal Air Force, both from a planning point of view and then preparing the first base as well. I was involved in the shaping and organising – how we were going to train pilots and engineers, when would we get the aircraft, what would we get with the aircraft, how long would it take and whether the organisation at RAF Coningsby would be fit for purpose.”
His next tour was as the Chief Engineer at Coningsby. So, by the time he became systems manager and Project Engineer, he knew the aircraft and the implications for all aspects of military planning very well. That role meant he held the power of the pen to clear the aircraft for flight and all of the variations to it.
It was a job that required someone with attention to detail and who had a good collaborative.
“Those qualities allowed us to ensure the 30-hour Challenge was a success and helped us create capacity in the programme to develop and implement the drops Programme. Drops came about because the UK is a very impatient nation, the Ministry Of Defence is more impatient than the nation itself and the Royal Air Force is even more impatient than the Ministry Of Defence, we had all of these people wanting everything yesterday. The Drops Programme represented small focused capability changes,” says Air Vice-Marshal Farnell.
“I was the guy everyone was turning to and saying, ‘Now we want the aircraft to do this or that.’ So I decided to team up with BAE Systems in a more collaborative fashion. First port of call was to see Bob Smith (pictured below), the then BAE Systems Chief Engineer at Warton, to see how we could advance the progress of the weapons system.”
“Bob brought his whole team together, though at first they were all wondering what we were going to do. Then we started white-boarding and people were getting excited. Everyone was at the board and you couldn’t get the pens off people.
“Everyone was eager because there’s nothing better than getting on with the things that brought the capability of this aircraft forward. Four hours later, at the end of that first meeting, all the whiteboards in the room were full and that became the Drops Programme. That was in 2006 and it’s still going today. The beauty of the Drops Programme is that the joint operator and BAE Systems team would develop the art of the possible, the Operational Evaluation Unit would fly a software patch in its immaturity, provide feedback, then the next patch was developed by the joint team and so on until we had an outcome that was fit for the warfighter – it’s what’s called spiral development.”
“All the engineers in the room that day were on cloud nine because it’s what they love doing. The important thing is that it was all about a collaborative and trusted relationship which meant we could work together. Bob Smith could have told me that he had enough on his plate, because he had, but it was something people wanted to get involved in because it felt very fast, progressive and it gives that human reward return that you need from the work.”
“I have always worked well in rooms with whiteboards with gangs of people creating what I call a ‘coalition of the willing’ - people who want to achieve something that’s fun and creative and that will make a difference. When you get a good idea underway you feed off each other.”
A couple of years later, AVM Farnell was promoted and left the Typhoon programme, but not long after that he was appointed director general Typhoon where he negotiated the outcome for the latest advanced tranche 3 aircraft.
Then, following a stint as F-35 team leader he was further promoted and became director of Combat air, which once again brought Typhoon into his remit and he carried out that role for two years. He was then appointed Chairman of the Joint Steering Committee, where he had oversight for the international programme.
In February 2014 he was appointed as general manager of NETMA – a role that has allowed him to draw on his wealth of Typhoon experience. However, despite an air force career that had been so heavily involved in the aircraft, he had never actually flown the jet. Until now...
Group captain Mike Baulkwill, the current station commander at RAF Coningsby, had previously invited him to fly with him and so, with retirement looming on the horizon, he took up the offer.
“During my career, I have flown the Hawk and Tornado but never got the opportunity to get the fly in a Typhoon so I was delighted to get a chance. In fact, my flight took place the day before my celebratory retirement lunch. We took off around 5.30 pm on what was a really claggy day with low cloud that almost felt like fog, and we decided to operate over the Wash, just off East Anglia. The first thing we did was a performance take-off. When a very experienced pilot does a performance take-off in a Typhoon, they end up with the biggest smile in the world every time.
“I knew how that felt for the newcomer because I once spoke to the Kuwaiti test pilot who flew out of Warton. I’ll never forget what he said to me: ‘It’s the best combat aircraft in the world. The performance take-off… you feel as though you would go to heaven.’ those words came back to me that evening.
"The aircraft doesn’t stop, you don’t feel any type of resistance, it just keeps pushing. After that we carried out a series of loops, then we stalled it on purpose to see the full and free movement and recovery as the aeroplane takes control. Then we did some supersonic runs and then barrel rolls. We hit two air-to-air targets, and a further nine on the ground. Finally, we descended and did some ocean work. It was incredibly impressive. The precision of the aircraft in responding to all the environmental inputs is truly amazing.
“It was nice for me to see some of the ideas that were developed during those earlier whiteboard discussions in Warton are now actually in place in the cockpit. For example, the way the air-to-ground pack-age and the DASS display presents itself was very much devised in those early days. Seeing those changes operating in the real environment was very satisfying. Today, I feel really privileged and passionate about how operationally capable the aircraft is.”
From chocks to chocks, the flight lasted about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Back down to earth air Vice-marshal Farnell can’t stop purring about the experience – it managed to top all his expectations. “I loved it…it’s just an unbelievable aircraft. The thing that was so amazing to me was that I knew all about its capabilities, but I’d saved myself to enjoy them until the end of my military career. It’s an amazing aircraft, absolutely amazing.”
“The engines are incredibly powerful. They are now returning 1,100 hours on average on the wing – the average in the combat air world is 250 hours. From a war-fighting point of view, having such reliable and incredibly powerful engines is crucial. The speed with which you approach the enemy is a key factor in who has advantage, so the Typhoon’s engines give you an incredible competitive edge.”
“That raw power combined with the precision of the flight control system is a pilot’s dream. The difference from flying hundreds of miles an hour to an unbelievable acceleration was just incredible. You feel the power and this gives you such confidence that you can move around the sky.
"It’s absolute freedom and when I landed I had that Typhoon smile.”
Back in Germany, Air Vice-Marshal Farnell highlights that the success of the weapon system has only been possible as a result of the collaboration between the Partner Nations, with particular fond memories of the very heart of the collaborative endeavour at NETMA. He and his fellow directors have together led a dedicated team that focuses on delivering what is de-scribed in NETMA’s mission statement: “Enhancing and sustaining an affordable Eurofighter and Tornado capability."
As he looks back on his career with the aircraft, air Vice-Marshal Farnell can do so with a certain amount of pride and that smile is certain to return. No doubt, air Vice-Marshal Farnell has certainly played his part.