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Top Aces train Forces

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“Usually we’re the bad guys,” says Didier Toussaint, president and one of three founders of Top Aces, a private company providing airborne training services to the CF. As the winner of the bid for the interim Contracted Airborne Training Services (iCATS) project, simulating opposition forces flying against CF-18s is only one role played by Top Aces’ pilots.

Founded in 2000 by three retired CF fighter pilots, the small company jumped into the second bidding round for the iCATS project two months before its closing in 2004. In February of the next year, as the only bidder compliant with the criteria for the contract, they were awarded three national standing offers to provide airborne training services to the CF. “We had a plan in our minds,” Mr. Toussaint says, “but, as with any big project, once you win the contract, then you have to execute the plan. For a small company like ours, that was definitely a challenge.”

According to iCATS project director Lieutenant-Colonel Larry Weir, it’s a challenge they’ve met and surpassed. “It’s a tremendously successful contract,” says LCol Weir, “and, to date, Top Aces is the only compliant contractor that we’ve had in Canada. They’ve done very well.”

Although Top Aces works closely with the Air Force, the largest portion of their work is done with the Army, training forward air controllers. The initial training done by Top Aces provides an introduction to close air support, including training with the radio and calculation of target co-ordinates. “Basically, we replace the F-18s in the first portion of the training,” says Mr. Toussaint, “and then the F-18s complete the training with real-life bombs.”

Working with the Navy, Top Aces plays several roles in training scenarios. They will often simulate an attack on the ship, either as the opposition force or as cruise missiles. Other times, they will augment the CF-18s or, if they’re not available, replace them defending the ship.

When providing training for the Air Force, Top Aces pilots, many of them former Forces members, mostly find themselves acting as the opposing forces.“We’ve hired some of the best recentlyretired fighter pilots we could find,” Mr. Toussaint says. “Those guys really have a lot of experience flying the F-18. They understand the tactics and they understand the world, so when you give them a fighter jet, even though it costs a lot less money, they can still replicate the tactics and ensure value in the training they provide.”

Top Aces uses modified Alpha Jet aircraft to fulfill their training services. While they have all the training capabilities, the cost of flying an Alpha Jet is only a quarter of the cost per hour of flying a CF-18, making the training far more cost-effective.

Top Aces’ pilots are significant resources in their own right. “When pilots leave the Forces, they have several options for continuing a career, including commercial air lines and other companies,” says Mr. Toussaint. “When that happens, the investment the Canadian Forces has put into those pilots is lost. With us, DND continues to reap the benefit of the $5 to $6 million that’s put into the basic training for a fighter pilot, not to mention the years of experience, which are invaluable".

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