To know more about the services they are providing to various governmental and civilian clients we talked with Ruben van der Mark, maintenance manager at AEC Skyline.
Q: Ruben, thank you very much for accepting our invite! First of all, can you illustrate to us a short history of AEC Skyline? How it all started and what kind of services are you offering?
You are welcome, Aljoša, thanks for approaching us. It all started in 2005 with Stef Have, a former RNLAF 301 Squadron AH-64D Apache pilot, establishing the overarching Forum Group. In 2008 Forum Group acquired Seppe airport in the south of the Netherlands (nowadays called Breda International Airport).
Operating out of this airport is Forum Group’s AEC Air Support which recently merged with the Groningen Airport Eelde based Skyline Aviation, the latter acquired by Forum in 2010.
Together they now form AEC Skyline. Before moving into Groningen Airport Eelde, the then Skyline Aviation operated out of Den Helder Airport, also known as Naval Air Station De Kooy. However, this was under the company’s previous ownership.
This year AEC Skyline will celebrate 30 years of providing high end, cost effective training support to the Dutch military (army, air force, navy) and NATO coalition partners. In addition, AEC Skyline serves the defence & aerospace industry and a series of domestic research institutes.
Traditionally our company provides “fast air” support to which we have added Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) support and critical data solutions, the latter comprising systems integration and IT networking, our “special projects” so to speak.
Meanwhile our “fast air” support includes Close Air Support (CAS), Digitally Aided Close Air Support (DACAS), Electronic Warfare (EW), “red air” (adversary air) training and target towing. ). Recently we have also been supporting manned-unmanned teaming (MUMT) trials with our Learjet.
Q. What kind of services did you provide during Adriatic Strike?
“Adriatic Strike 2021” saw us providing close air support training with the overall aim of the exercise being the training of participating Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) and aircrew in the conditions of conventional warfare. For this AEC Skyline deployed one of its L-39s.
Q. How was flying from Cerklje ob Krki? Did you like the infrastructure and collaborating with the Slovenian Army?
It was great operating out of Cerklje ob Krki. Local staff are supportive and very professional. This applies to Slovenia including its military in general by the way. The only drawback of LJCE is the fact that right now only VFR traffic is permitted. This can hamper operations [Author’s note: the IFR system was still not operational during the exercise].
Q. How can a company like AEC Skyline help small armed forces, like the Slovenian?
We can do this by providing high end, cost effective training support, for example, by delivering Digitally Aided Close Air Support (DACAS) training which is the way ahead when it comes to CAS. So, best “bang for the buck” by providing 5th Generation like CAS that complements the traditional “voice” CAS brief.
Q. Which types of aircraft do you have in your fleet and how are they equipped?
Currently AEC Skyline’s fleet includes a single Learjet 36A (N116MA) and two L-39s (N139LE, N139LZ), which are equipped with a L3Harris Wescam EO/IR sensor pod, datalink. In addition, we operate a GA8 Airvan (N1753S). Right now ,we are also contemplating expansion of our fleet.
Q. Where did you purchase the L-39s? How much time did you spent to install all the systems to be mission ready?
We have operated various L-39s for almost 30 years now. Both our current L-39s were formerly registered in Estonia. N139LE is a former East German air force L-39ZO whereas L-39C N139LZ originally comes from Kyrgyzstan. Over the years the aircraft underwent many changes, incorporating new avionics (glass cockpit), with us adding new mission systems along the way, this in order to comply with legislation and to meet changes in demand by our customers.
Q. Your company offers also inflatable targets, this is a quite unknown but interesting niche. Can you tell us more?
As most of our personnel have a military background, many of whom are former RNLAF AH-64 or F-16 pilots, we noticed a training gap during exercises. Frankly there was little realistic threat simulation except for some systems coming from the Polygone range for instance. However, these include actual SA-6 or other systems which require a loader to get to a training area so rather cumbersome for most training objectives.
Hence, we decided to procure some full size inflatable decoys, replicating the SA-8 air defence system, the T-72 main battle tank. Both systems are light weight and offer a realistic visual and thermal signature and are easy to install, for instance during Air To Ground Operations School (AGOS) led training events. Adding even more realism, the SA-8 can also be combined with a radar emitter and/or “smokey SAMs”.
Q. With which countries are you collaborating? What’s the next multinational military exercise in your agenda?
Right now, AEC Skyline is under a multi-year contract with USAFE to provide JTAC CAS training, mainly in Germany. Despite restrictions imposed by Covid, depending on the task you are looking at, our personnel also spent time supporting exercises, actual operations in the Caribbean, Denmark, Lithuania during the last twelve months, just to name a few. And domestically, in The Netherlands of course.
Q. A question mainly for the spotters… tell us about your tail art and what it represents.
The tail art with which our aircraft are adorned, represents the Roman god of Neptune, traditionally associated with the sea. The advent of the new scheme coincided more or less with our first “red air” taskings in late 2017 for the Dutch led multinational Fighter Weapons Instructor Training course (FWIT, since rebranded into Weapons Instructor Course). This was done under the North Sea Aggressors scheme.
Q. How do you recruit your personnel? Is a military background important for most of your positions?
Most of our pilots flying the L-39s are seasoned, former RNLAF F-16 pilots. Likewise, many of our staff, sensor operators are former military. However, it is all about proficiency so we are aiming for the right mix. This means we have experienced mechanics maintaining our aircraft, most of whom have not served in the military, nor have most of our Learjet pilots.
Q. In the USA there are many private companies that offer their services to the military, some of them have bigger fleets than most Air Forces and this kind of business is growing also in Europe. What’s your outlook for the industry and AEC Skyline in particular? Why do the military outsource more and more services to private companies?
In Europe we expect demand for contract air support to grow too, just like we see in the United States. Partly, this has to do with air forces again preparing themselves for high intensity operations against a (near) peer enemy. Hence, the increased need for adversary air training. However, such operations typically require 5th Generation combat aircraft (F-35 etc) which are expensive to operate and are in short supply given everything that needs to be trained. When equipped with up to date mision systems older generation platforms can provide a tremendous dose of effective training support, at much lower cost. For “red air” sorties for instance or to train JTACs, regardless whether it’s to prepare for high intensity warfare of for counter insurgency scenarios.
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