The great Grob reprieve?
Awelcome announcement on the day this issue of Pilot went to press: the Air Cadet Grob motorglider fleet, grounded since 2014 and scheduled to be scrapped, appears at the eleventh hour to have won a reprieve. The Air Cadets will not get them back, but a number of the aircraft at least are set to fly again – and be used to give young people in the UK and abroad air experience flights – in a joint enterprise by the Spitfire Heritage Trust and the Light Aircraft Association.
This is a rather happier end, at least as far as the aircraft are concerned, to the sorry saga of Cadet flying being curtailed after the entire Air Cadet fleet of seventy Grob Viking gliders and sixty Vigilant motorgliders was ‘paused’ by the military duty holder, No.2 Flight Training School.
In fact the officer in command, Group Captain John Middleton didn’t have much choice in 2014 but to ground the fleet, after an RAF engineering audit of civilian company Serco, which had been contracted to maintain the aircraft, revealed fundamental airworthiness issues. These problems arose not because the Vikings and Vigilants were actually unfit to fly, but were related to the paperwork – poor administration and recording of maintenance tasks and repairs.
In an attempt to put right all this nonsense, a ‘recovery programme’ was established involving two outsourcing specialists, Serco (again) and Babcock. Both in turn subcontracted their work to what you might call proper aircraft maintenance companies (one wonders how much of the contract value was nevertheless trousered by the two service providers)
Serco subcontracted work to Marshall. They have not recovered any airframes and given up on that task. Babcock subcontracted the recovery of the gliders to Southern Sailplanes Ltd. Southern Sailplanes has so far delivered most of the total of 46 gliders expected to come back into service.
So something of a result there? Sadly not: Serco currently manages to keep available for flying around a dozen of those forty or so gliders. The BGA advises that its gliding clubs regularly achieve close to 100% glider fleet availability.
You have to ask why it is that the MOD and its contractors have failed to get the motorgliders, currently in storage at Little Rissington, back into the air. Although they are said to be facing some (surely arbitrary) airframe life limitation, the aircraft are reported to be in good condition. Would it have been such a problem for Grob to certify and re-life them as civilian aircraft? The differences between Vigilants and the certified 109 are minimal. It seems that the main issue was that the Grob/ Limbach engine is no longer supported, so the Vigilants would have needed to be re-engined, perhaps with Rotax nine-series engines. However, it is hard to see how this would have been much of a problem.
Well, we know there is now an avenue open – provided that the LAA can negotiate successfully with the CAA to recognise the Vigilant as a NON-EASA aircraft – but the fact remains that Air Cadets have lost their motorglider fleet and get their ‘wings’ today after merely flying a glider simulator and being taken on an air experience flight. And the MOD has blown £8m on a recovery plan that has put just a dozen Air Cadet gliders back into regular service and failed to return a single motorglider to the air.
Despite the aircraft being saved from the scrapman’s axe, it is hard to see this entire affair as anything less than an absolute scandal. While Babcock seems to have done the right thing, the MOD, the RAF and Serco should not be allowed to get away with it!