“Wow. Simply wow.” At Royal Air Force (RAF) Brize Norton in the UK, Fl. Lt. Steven Hurst-Brown of 101 squadron needs just those words to describe his experience flying Vogayer, also known the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). “It’s quite an aircraft and quite a difference from the C-130 Hercules and L.1011 TriStar I flew before this.” Indeed, for everyone involved in Voyager it’s like stepping into a time machine set to fast forward. AirTanker, the company that manages the RAF’s Voyager fleet, is happy to see the Airbus MRTT succesfully taking on its operational role, although a bit of pioneering is still involved.
On a windy spring day in May, a row of four Voyagers sits on where up untill not even a year ago, characteristic Royal Air Force Vickers VC-10s or Lockheed L.1011 TriStars used to sit, like dinosaurs, relics from an age where fuel efficiency, crew resource management (CRM) and noise limitations were unheard of. Voyager is a aircraft that is true to the present time, and just as easily refuels other aircraft as it hauls 291 passengers and 43 tonnes of freight anywhere across the globe. It’s quickly winning the hearts and minds of all at Brize Norton.
That’s music to the ears of AirTanker, the public private partnership that in 2008 took on the challenge of delivering, supporting and maintaining the future transport and air-to-air refuelling (AAR) operational capability for the RAF. Under the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme, the aircraft chosen for the job was the Airbus A330 MRTT, named Voyager in British service. Nine aircraft have now been delivered, with eight operated by operational RAF crews from 10 and 101 squadron, and one operated by AirTanker with civilian pilots, many of whom double as sponsored reservists with the RAF.
Voyager is now the sole RAF aircraft in the AAR role, and it performs beyond expectations using the probe and drogue system. “We are getting a lot of positive feedback from Voyager pilots, but also from Typhoon or Tornado pilots on the receiving end”, says Geoff Winterbottom, Aircraft Capability Development Manager at AirTanker. “The pilots comment on the stable air behind Voyager, which makes the approach to the drogue that much more smooth. Right now we have two aircraft fitted with two AAR-systems, named Voyager KC2, and five aircraft with three AAR-systems, named Voyager KC3.” Advanced cameras provide the Mission Systems Operator (MSO) in the cockpit with an excellent hi-def view of the refuelling process.
The AAR stations at the wingtips are used mostly by fighter aircraft such as Typhoon and Tornado, with the fuselage refuelling unit first used last April for refuelling a Hercules inflight. Also in April, AirTanker notched up the busiest day by the Voyager fleet so far, with aircraft operating over three continents. “Operations are being stepped now”, says Winterbottom, who is just about to head off to Seville, Spain, to pick up Voyager number eight from the Airbus facility located over there.
Also in April, Fl. Lt Steven Hurst-Brown (33) flew a Voyager all the way to Las Vegas to pick up some Typhoons for their return home. “It was my first long flight after coming of the TriStar, and one of the things I noticed is that this aircraft is less tiring to fly despite having only a two men crew. The Hercules and TriStar meant a lot more work, and Voyager reduces the workload. It requires different CRM also, and that’s quite a big change for us. But it is such a wonderful aircraft, so simple in comparison with the over-engineered TriStar.”
Engineering is also the territory of AirTanker, a consortium made up aerospace, defence and facilities management specialists Airbus Group, Rolls-Royce, Thales, Babcock and Cobham. The AirTanker Training School not only trains flight crews and cabin crews on Voyager, but also engineers to be fully licensed experts on Airbus A330 maintenance. The Training School at Brize Norton is a place where the military world and the civil aviation world mix like no other. Military personnel gain valuable experience here for future jobs in the civil world. AirTanker has made sure endless civil knowledge on the Airbus A330 has been collected and centered in the Training School. A French Air Force pilot was trained here also, in preparation of a soon to be announced French order for Airbus A330 MRTTs.
AirTanker is however further pioneering into the realm between military and civil aviation. In 2016, the Voyager fleet will consist of 14 aircraft, five of which will be ‘surge’ aircraft; that’s aircraft that will be quickly available to the RAF in case of a major conflict, but can otherwise be used in a civil configuration by AirTanker for lease on wetlease to other parties. AirTanker’s marketing will be aimed at civil charter airlines – with the cabin lay out offering lots of leg room – but other options are being thought of as well.
According to many, there’s a significant shortage of tanker aircaft within NATO, with the total capacity being only 30 percent of what it should be. In a few years time, AirTanker may be in a position to offer a highly valuable AAR asset to NATO members in need of such a capacity. When AirheadsFLY visited the Czech Republic last February, it was pointed out how much effort the Czech Air Force has to put in organizing AAR training for its Saab Gripen pilots. Voyager is also an indeal transport aircraft for use by other NATO countries, as the aircraft’s cargohold can hold up to eight standard sized NATO pallets.
However, for such ideas to become reality, a lot of political and procedural hurdles have to be overwon first. Voyager is at first, of course, a UK asset and since the start of air transport operations in April 2012, proved to be just that by clocking up more than 9,750 hours, carrying more than 172,000 passengers and 10,000 tonnes of freight. This includes the start of flights in and out of Camp Bastion in support of the Afghanistan air-bridge in December last year. The AirTanker owned Airbus regularly flies to the Falkland Island.
Moreover, during over 230 air-to-air refuelling sorties in excess of 4,000 tonnes of fuel was given away to receiving aircraft. Presently, the fleet provides a 24/7 Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) to support Typhoons that protect the UK islands from airborne intruders. In the future, Voyager should also be able to support the Lockheed Martin F-35B of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Joint Lightning II Force, as according to AirTanker, the aircraft can be fitted with an air to air refuelling boom with relative easy. Saudi Arabia already operates the Airbus A330 MRTT in this configuration.
The AirTanker contract with the UK MoD lasts until 2035 and by then, Voyagers will still fill the aprons of Brize Norton, but also the aprons of airfields outside UK boundaries. It’s quite an aircraft and it’ll be a familiar sight for years to come.
© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Elmer van Hest