By CATHY ARONSON



Britain's Royal Air Force plans to recruit New Zealand's top combat pilots and crew after the Government's decision to scrap the fighter squadron.



The pilots' combat flights have been grounded by the proposal to sell 17 RNZAF Skyhawk fighters and 17 Aermacchi jet trainers, and they have a future only in transport or surveillance.



The RAF needs 42 fast jet pilots and 22 support helicopter pilots and the New Zealand pilots would require little training and would earn about twice as much in the RAF.

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In the RNZAF, fighter pilots are generally paid between $35,000 and $65,000.



A flight lieutenant's starting pay in the RAF is between £27,700 ($94,346) and £32,000 ($108,991), although living expenses are much higher in Britain.



Last night, Defence Minister Mark Burton confirmed the RNZAF was negotiating with the RAF.



Mr Burton said Air Vice-Marshal Don Hamilton was requested to help find the pilots new positions within other air forces.



"New Zealand pilots have highly marketable skills. We want them to have the best possible outcome which might mean picking up positions with other air forces."



The RNZAF would consider relaxing normal release procedures if they found new employment in another air force.



Prime Minister Helen Clark's response through a spokesman in Crete yesterday was: "Good luck to them."



When the Government announced its decision to scrap the air combat force this month, Wing Commander Nick Osborne said he did not want to fly transport craft and was already considering looking for work in Australia or Britain.



"There's a real art to becoming a combat pilot. It's not something I want to give up."



Ohakea-based Wing Commander Nick Osborne is responsible for 75 Squadron's 12 Skyhawks and 70 crew, including 10 pilots.



No 2 Squadron in Nowra, New South Wales, has five planes and the 14 Squadron pilots that fly the Aermacchis from Ohakea are also looking for work.



About 700 personnel jobs could go with the pilots. The British Ministry of Defence is also looking for personnel staff including doctors and engineers.



RNZAF spokesman Ric Cullinane said the Air Force was a long way from any concrete deals and individuals were working through their options. He said the RNZAF would also explore vacancies with the Royal Australian Air Force.



Mr Cullinane said the air combat pilots had an "astonishingly high reputation around the world. The military are not normally in a position to employ laterally".



"For a highly trained combat unit to suddenly come up on the market will be a bonus for another air force."



According to the British newspaper the Times, the RAF has been losing pilots to commercial airlines that are offering higher salaries and a more predictable lifestyle, as RAF pilots can spend months away from home.



Squadron Leader Jason Easthope told the Times that he wanted to stay in New Zealand but accepted the only way to continue to fly jets might be with the RAF.



"It has really made me dig down deep for the patriotism I feel for my country," he said.



"We all believed very strongly in what we were doing - flying jets for New Zealand.



"I don't particularly want to do it for another air force. And I want my kids to grow up here."



New Zealand has flown Skyhawks for 31 years.



By the end of the year the Skyhawks and Aermacchis will be grounded and eventually sold.