UK air force launching major ‘green’ aircraft initiatives

15th July 2021 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) is planning to bring an electrically-powered elementary trainer aircraft into service by the end of this decade, and to adapt its other fleets of aircraft to be able to operate on 100% sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). These moves are for both operational and environmental reasons.

The Ministry of Defence is currently responsible for 50% of all UK national government carbon emissions, with RAF Air Command alone accounting for 41%. UK legislation requires that the country achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“I am determined that we will have our first zero emission aircraft operational by the end of this decade, which fittingly will be our youth air experience aircraft, for air cadets, university cadets and elementary flying training,” said UK Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal (equivalent to General in South Africa) Sir Mike Wigston in his address to the Global Air Chiefs Conference 2021 on Wednesday. Currently, the RAF uses piston-engined Grob Aerospace Tutor T1 aircraft in this role.

“We will have a competition” for the electrically-powered trainer, RAF Deputy Commander Capability Air Marshal (equivalent to Lieutenant-General in South Africa) Andrew Turner had told the virtual Farnborough Connect conference on Tuesday. The new trainer would be brought into service “before the end of this [UK] parliament, or early in the next”. (The next British general election must be held by May 2024 at the latest.) “If battery technology moves faster then we will move with it,” he added.

RAF aircraft can already fly using a 50:50 mix of conventional jet fuel and SAF. “We are going to endeavour to fly a 100% SAF-powered aircraft this side of Christmas, and move that fleet to 100% SAF in about two years time,” reported Turner. He did not identify the type of aircraft that they were planning to use.

“The [RAF] Rapid Capabilities Office is leading our synthetic fuel projects, including exciting advances in waste-to-fuel technology through to electrofuels,” highlighted Wigston. “These new approaches are environmentally-friendly and sustainable; they are also secure in their supply and the chemically purer fuel we are producing indicates cleaner engines that results in lower maintenance, longer equipment life, and lower noise, heat and visual signatures such as contrails.”

The one major drawback of SAFs was their cost, cautioned Turner. Currently, SAFs generally cost per litre about four times more than conventional Jet-A1 fuel. “We need a momentum in society to be demanding of change such that airlines – the whole industry – moves in this direction,” he affirmed.