Air cadets walking away from a helicopter

Microsoft 365 to give air cadets flying start

The Royal Air Force Air Cadets (RAFAC) is using Microsoft technology to aid youngsters in their training and help them reach for the skies.

The organisation is using Microsoft 365 to help its 12,000 volunteers spend less time filling out paperwork and more time offering cadets flying and aviation experiences.

Microsoft’s services are expected to reduce RAFAC’s running costs, which management will put back into helping the 40,000 young people aged between 12 and 18 it currently oversees.

“We have 12,000 volunteers, so they don’t work for us on a permanent basis,” said Martin Pratley, Infrastructure Manager. “They do a full day’s work somewhere else and then between Monday and Friday they help us run Parade Nights, where the kids go to their squadron and do their training in the evening.

Female Air Cadet sat in glider

“We used to have volunteers doing paperwork on a weekend. They told us that if they weren’t doing that they would be out with the cadets. Now, rather than them sitting there doing paperwork, there’s more ‘contact time’, so the cadets get more out of it in terms of the things they do and learn.”

The RAFAC is sponsored by the Royal Air Force and manages the Air Training Corps and RAF sections of the Combined Cadet Force. While its headquarters are at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire, it has two national training centres and oversees more than 1,000 squadrons across the UK and seven overseas locations.

After earning awards and studying for qualifications such as a BTEC in Aviation Studies and various leadership courses, cadets enter society with a range of skills. Those wishing to apply to join the Forces are also highly regarded.

“Former cadets tend to lead healthier lifestyles and don’t get into as much trouble,” Pratley added. “We’ve had cadets that have left school with no academic qualifications whatsoever, but because they’ve got an Aviation Studies BTEC, which is recognised in the industry, they’ve ended up with apprenticeships at companies such as Airbus and BAE. Now, they’ve become productive members of society. If they hadn’t got that, would they have got a job?

“The more we can provide that time and those opportunities by becoming digital and online, the more everyone benefits. Then, more people will see it’s a great experience, so we get more cadets.”

Everything you need to know about Microsoft 365

Office 365 has allowed RAFAC to give its 12,000 volunteers a messaging platform and cloud storage – something that would have cost a “horrendous” amount in its previous on-premise solution, Pratley said.

“By moving to Office 365, we’ve removed the need to upgrade software, because Microsoft handles that now. I just manage the day-to-day running of the IT operation, which allows more time to review strategic requirements across RAFAC.”

It’s also giving tens of thousands of people digital skills simply by using the programs such as Outlook and the other Office applications. “It’s increasing employability from a cadet’s point of view as well as the staff. It’s win-win all-round,” said Pratley, who is part of a team of just six people who rolled out the services for an organisation that, at 55,000 people, is larger than the Royal Air Force.

Other positive developments include the use of Enterprise Mobility and Security to protect RAFAC data on volunteers’ mobile phones, only removing those files when they leave. Previously, the entire device had to be wiped.

RAF 100 badge on the sleeve of an RAF helicopter pilot about to take part in the Centenary Flypast over Buckingham Palace in London

Crown copyright

“Office 365 and the other Microsoft cloud services have aided our journey towards GDPR compliance,” Pratley said.

It’s been such a success that the RAFAC hopes to go further and use Microsoft’s Azure cloud service to run operations and handle spikes in demand during Parade Nights, and Skype to train cadets across the country from one location.

“In the Highlands of Scotland, the squadrons are so geographically disparate that you might have a member of staff who will do training for three of them and they have to travel for six hours,” Pratley said.

“So, a couple of the things we are keen to explore ways to train cadets across the country from one location. If the staff member can then teach Airmanship Knowledge or Principles of Flight online, then they can reach a larger audience. Microsoft Stream and Teams could allow these to be saved as a recorded webinar, so we could create a library of training videos that people can watch again later, with benefits from the AI capabilities like transcription and the accessibility features.”

“It’s great we’ve identified with the Air Cadets how Microsoft 365 helps them achieve their objectives to build a community and deliver cultural change with technology,” added Richard Freebody, Modern Workplace Specialist.

One of the next phases of the journey for RAFAC is to develop the cultural transformation to build an inclusive community for the volunteers.

“We managed to get 5,000 users deployed in the first month, one of our next steps to allow people to share in groups, chat in a secure way using mobile devices. Microsoft Teams should fulfil this requirement very effectively. We are really excited about the next phase of our journey with Microsoft 365.” Martin added.