PODCAST: From cockpit to trailblazing CEO – John Lonergan, founder of Milskil

Milskil flight simulator

Join Milskil CEO John Lonergan as he explains the secrets to building an attraction business in defence – and how to put your best foot forward to win defence contracts.

In this episode of the Defence Connect Podcast, the former RAAF fast-jet pilot also highlights the work his business is undertaking to equip pilots to be most effective in the cockpit through its focused training programs, matched with preparing Milskil to play its role as the Air Force realises its transition into a fifth-generation fighting force under Plan Jericho.

Enjoy the podcast,

The Defence Connect team

 

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Defence Connect Podcast, with your host, Phil Tarrant.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Oh, g'day. It's Phil Tarrant here. I am the host of the Defence Connect podcast, thanks for tuning in. Today I'm joined by someone who I think is going to be a really interesting guest in terms the way in which they've shifted a career within the air force into what is, one of our leading SME's now in the Australian defence industry. I'm joined by John Lonergan from Milskil, John how are you going?

 

John Lonergan:

I'm good thanks, yourself?

 

Phil Tarrant:

Good, thanks for having us mate, so we're at Avalon 2017, some pretty good gear out there, some good kids, some good capabilities, a Growler's just flown in, I didn't see it, I don't know if you checked it out or not.

 

John Lonergan:

Yeah, I did, good to see all the new toys and I'd have to say that certainly from the air force side of things, the whole Jericho vision, the good bits of gear are on the ground and I believe we'll see the JSF down here later in the week. So, it's pretty exciting.

 

Phil Tarrant:

It is. So, for someone who is ex-RAAF, ex-Fighter Pilot, I think you kicked off your career in Mirage's and moved on to F-18's, spent some time in the states on F-16's, how has the world changed, since you were in the cockpit into now, into defence industry, defence business.

 

John Lonergan:

Well, I think in the area that we work, when I started it didn't exist in Australia, so that is contractors providing client war fighter training to the likes of fighter pilots. So that was very much a closed shop internal to uniform and that's across all the services, so all of my training was done by uniformed personnel and it wasn't until I went to the US Air force, on exchange, that I was actually exposed to contractors who were doing part of the simulator training on the F-16. That's kind of where I saw the future I guess.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So, the vision for Milskil, so I was fortunate to spend some time up in Williamtown earlier this year and I had a good look through your simulators there, I was really impressed.

 

John Lonergan:

Yeah, thank you.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Some of the guys had a chance to sit in the cockpit and fly around a little bit but I was really impressed by, not only the professional rigour of what you've created there, but the energy of the people who are working there as well, you've got some extremely talented ex-fighter pilots up there who are supporting the training of our current generation of fighter pilots here. That whole vision of realising, when you were in the States, contractors providing this essential training services and translating that into what you created with Milskil, that journey, how long did that take and, I mentioned it was quite a topsy-turvy sort of path?

 

John Lonergan:

Well, the journey itself started in 2001 and we got our first chance to actually contract into the Classic Comet Simulator, the simulator they had at that time in 2003, the environment at that time, it was still very much a closed shop and I've had it said to me they're were probably a few years ahead of our time getting into that area. So, once we got in, in about 2003, there was a slow acceptance that you could actually provide these services with the right contractors, operating under the right company construct ethos and culture. So, from there that contract grew to supporting all the classic simulator operations and it started off originally doing the support to, what we call, the operational conversion, which is the first six months of our course and now where we find ourselves is, we provide the support all the way through to the high end post-graduate courses, we also provide all the pre-deployment simulator training for current operations.

 

 

So, we've really moved ahead in that spectrum but it was a slow and steady thing because it's a very high-end area, because you’re teaching people in this case in the air combat thing, you're teaching people stuff that they are going to take in this platform into combat and we were fortunate enough then, when Super Hornet came, for us to get on-board with Super Hornet and we've just recently picked up the training for Growler. So, we cover the entire spectrum in the air combat fast jets.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So, how big is the Milskil team now, how many people within the company?

 

John Lonergan:

Well, the total team now sits at around 40 but we do have some people who work for us part-time in addition to that and those people, there's a big cart tray of fibre instructors, air battle managers from both the ground environment and the E-7 environment. We have people with Jaytech experience and obviously ACO's and Whizzos and electronic warfare officers, so we have a really broad gambit of skills that all actually work together to make everyone smarter at each part of the environment that we work in and that's really, really useful for us. Not to mention the people that we do have are extremely experienced so we've got people that we bring from the Royal Australian Air force, ex-ADF people into our business, they all have to be highly confident, talented. We have a thing where we talk about they have to be qualified, experienced and respected amongst their peers because we actually work with these guys and if they don't listen to you or trust you it's a pointless exercise, so we have to gain and maintain trust.

 

 

So, very experienced guys and a very standardised approach to how we do business with them.

 

Phil Tarrant:

How many Aussie pilots have been through your simulator programmes from introductory stuff through to your post-grad stuff?

 

John Lonergan:

I could not tell you the number but every Classic Comet pilot, since 2003 and every Super pilot since 2010 and soon to be the G Pilots and Whizzo's once the G model sitting down, I haven't kept track of the numbers.

 

Phil Tarrant:

But it's quite a lot. It must be quite satisfying then for you to know that our current operational capabilities is in part the great work that you guys are doing at Milskil?

 

John Lonergan:

It is and we are driven by passion for the war fighters side of things and we were talking a bit earlier, there's a great emphasis in acquisition on the actual equipment and facilities and logistics and supply chains but the number one, fundamental input to capably train personnel and we actually work in the operations side, which is not really visible, it's not a highly visible part of defence industry, and we actually work with the end user of that pipeline that acquires that equipment. So, the equipment is a tool that we use and the end user actually gets the combat effect so it's a different place and it's not recognised so it's great to be able to have a talk about it, because we're generally unseen and we tend to blend in to the operational side of the defence force.

 

Phil Tarrant:

A point you made earlier, out in the flight line there are some great kit out there and in terms of the acquisition and sustainment of that, that's typically where the conversation revolves around as in the mechanics of it rather than the people and on-going sort of discussion we have within Defence Connect and people we chat with is this whole capability debate, I don't think anyone's yet to really understand what those capabilities are, the sort of work taking place right now to realise what we need but most of the time it's with emphasis on manufacturing capabilities rather than people capabilities.

 

John Lonergan:

Yes, yes, it is.

 

Phil Tarrant:

So the type of work that you're doing, how do you make sure that you are able to provide up to the minute, leading training for these pilots coming through, how do you keep your capabilities fresh and right up to the moment to make sure that what we're teaching our guys today are going to help out people and keep things moving forward.

 

John Lonergan:

Yes, it's an interesting point, couple of things with training. First of all, it is training people that make the difference with these machines an important thing with training is, training is always in an evolution, operational training particularly in the war fighter training whether it be army navy air force, is in constant evolution and so what we train today is not what we trained last year. What we'll do tomorrow is probably not what we did today. There's an evolution, a spiral upgrade in training that occurs a really high tempo so for example, when they have to deploy for operations, the entire training environment had to change overnight to meet the requirements for those environments. So the question you asked was how do we actually keep ahead of the curve on that?

 

 

Well, there are two parts to that. One is that our people are very highly experienced and have operated globally, we have people from US Air force, our own people have been deployed so we can draw on our own knowledge. We are also completely embedded into the system so we get to work with the same intelligence, the same tactics, we help the tactics development, we do testing of tactics, so we are actually kind of civilians in uniform or we're non-uniformed frontline war fighters so at least a supporting element with that.

 

Phil Tarrant:

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently chatting with ex-fast jet pilots who have moved into business and I've noticed some commonalities between them and I won't say what they are because I imagine you'll answer this but, when you make that transition from the cockpit into what you do today and you're growing one of the SME's, one of the very good SME's within the defence industry right, did you feel as though you were equipped to become a business owner and those skills that you learned within service with the air force, did that give you a head start at all, or do you think it might have hampered you at all?

 

John Lonergan:

Again, two parts that I think for all defence people and certainly the people that work in the operations scene, you are given a number of skill sets that help you analyse problems and achieve an outcome because in defence they are trying to achieve an outcome. So, you have those tools ingrained in you being a fighter pilot in the air combat space, certainly there are some quick decision making. Does that make you a good business person? I think it gives you tools, I think there are some other things that you have to take into account to become a business person and one of those is the acceptance of risk, and moving out of your comfort zone.

 

Phil Tarrant:

And you're enjoying life after the cockpit? You probably jump in, you can do some hours?

 

John Lonergan:

Yeah, I'm fortunate if I can jump into the simulator and I still fly myself privately, I like flying, but I also like driving the direction of Milskil because we are a unique business that really we're trying to get visibility of exactly what we do because training with all this new equipment we go back to that sitting on the flight line, the whole Jericho vision is that all of this equipment will work together and by working together everyone will have situational awareness of what's going on and that data is fused. The big challenge that we are going to have is not how to teach someone to fly a JSF or to operate an E-7, it's how to put all those things fused together and for our uniformed people, our war fighters of the future, is how to actually do that in a Jericho or enabled sense so working across those things an actual training for that is only in its embryonic stages and we've been involved with that, it's called LVC or distributed training but we've been involved in that since the joining of Warfare Battle Laboratory for eight years, helping them to design scenarios to bring whole groups of people together to work and that'll be realised into the Air Warfare Centre that's being set up.

 

 

The training challenge is going to go beyond more than just training someone to do a job in their platform or with their equipment, it's how they use everyone else in there and that's where we're positioning ourselves as well.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Jericho is a journey for air force and related services, the A-35 is going to deliver some great capabilities and for that to resonate right throughout air force with a truly integrated network force, from your advantage point working with todays and tomorrow war fighters, do you think that Jericho vision is really starting to come clear to air force in general and there is a ground swell behind that or do you think it's got some room to go still?

 

John Lonergan:

I think when Jericho came out, it is like a vision and it's talking about a defence force that didn't exist when the vision came out and I'm not sure, I think in the beginning, people weren't sure whether that just meant innovation was Jericho or working together or networking was Jericho, but I think everyone is now getting a better understanding and certainly the people who I've talked to and the defence meetings that I've been at, I'm seeing more people talking about air warfare destroyers working with JSF's which is a conversation you generally wouldn't hear before with different service elements and how things need to pull together. So, I think people understand the concept of everyone working together as people but with systems working together. So, I think it is a journey and until you plug all that stuff together, you won't actually realise what you've got and then when you are looking at it you won't actually realise initially how to exploit it to it's best thing. So, I think it's a pretty exciting journey.

 

Phil Tarrant:

It's very exciting.

 

John Lonergan:

For anyone that's getting in today, I mean, look at the assets on the flight line at this airshow, let alone what's happening in the rest of defence, very exciting place, technology driven, very smart space to be.

 

Phil Tarrant:

What does the future look like for Milskil with the F-35 in place? It's obviously a massive amount of infrastructure development happening within Williamtown to support and maintain the new fighters from a training perspective, obviously we're setting up pilots off-shore now to learn the craft to fly an F-35, is there a role for Milskil in there in the future?

 

John Lonergan:

Well the simple answer is I hope so, the JSF training continuum is still a bit of a mystery to everyone including the air force, we certainly see that being the only company to provide these services for the last 13 years across all the front end capabilities, though would be really well positioned for JSF, in fact we're training the people that they're now converting on to the JSF. So, we're hopeful but we don't actually know yet, the big industry focus is on, as you said, the manufacturing and widgets, the tangible things, there's been very little focus from government at all on solving capabilities and training and in particular opportunities for Australian companies in JSF training and I think part of that's because, the system just doesn't recognise, and is not built around operational training. So we do find ourselves sitting in a bit of a vacuum at times, which we're hoping to educate people on, but certainly right now we haven't been connected to the JSF but that's our goal.

 

Phil Tarrant:

That's good and, we're running out of time John, but as someone who, from my observations, has been really able to crack that SME market, you've identified an opportunity for the ADF in terms of evolving the way in which they train their fighter pilots through contractors, from your experience in the US, obviously a long journey and you are always working hard at it, the F-35 might be some potential opportunities for you guys, but as an SME who's done pretty good within the defence industry, what would be, one or two tips for other SME's too, what have you got to get right to make sure that you are going to be attractive to government tenders or have something which you deliver to the ADF?

 

John Lonergan:

Well, I would have said two years ago, just be really good at what you do and you will be able to showcase yourself, we are seeing a change in defence industry with the use of more single contracts through primes, so it's get visibility but that is a difficult thing. So, it's to be able to showcase yourself to a customer, podcasts are a way to do it.

 

Phil Tarrant:

Yeah, podcasts are a great way to do it.

 

John Lonergan:

So, the defence white papers says they want to connect with SME's, we're sitting at the moment it becomes a little bit difficult for SME's to gain visibility because you can no longer deal direct with your customer because they are using the prime model so, in the current environment I'd say you need to build relationships with some of the primes, I think you need to use like CDIC and exploit those opportunities because I think defence has realised that, certainly at a recent lunch I attended, they've realised that their vision of connecting SME's has slightly corrupted in how they're doing things, so I'd say just be good at what you do, you need to showcase yourself to customers where you can, build relationships with primes in your area and just try to keep doing a good job and just let's hope that the vision of being able to connect with SME's actually gets realised by defence.

 

Phil Tarrant:

That's good, sage advice. John I really appreciate it, for our listeners who are from the SME space, you can go check out milskil.com, I had a look at it the other day and there is a good story, you know, you guys have done well and it's to see Aussie businesses with the drive and the fortitude and the passion to go about creating these people capabilities, which are so important to the development of ADF moving forward, so I really appreciate you coming on, I've enjoyed the chat, keep in touch. If you handle things with the F-35, let us know first and yeah to hear. Remember to check out defenceconnect.com.au and also all the social stuff, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin if you'd like to follow us. If you've got any questions for myself or for John, you can contact the team at defenceconnect.com.au and I'll get them over to John and hopefully he can answer for you, anything for me or feedback on the show please feel free to get in touch, we'll see you again next time bye bye.

 

 

Listen to previous episodes of the Defence Connect podcast:

Episode 34: PODCAST: Making a technical contribution to Australia’s defence force – Ian Irving, Northrop Grumman
Episode 33: PODCAST: Cracking the international supply chain – Andrew Sanderson, TAE Aerospace
Episode 32: PODCAST: Maximising Australia’s defence potential – Richard Marles, opposition defence spokesman
Episode 31: PODCAST: Championing local talent in defence – Peter Freed, Cirrus Real Time Processing Systems
Episode 30: PODCAST: Engaging primes as an SME – Stephen Renkert, Electrotech
Episode 29: PODCAST: Driving innovation in defence - Stephane Ibos, Maestrano
Episode 28: PODCAST: Manufacturing Australia's future – Jens Goennemann, AMGC
Episode 27: PODCAST: Brave new world – the ever-evolving defence technology sector
Episode 26: PODCAST: Going global with SMEs
Episode 25: PODCAST: Shaping Victoria’s defence industry

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