The Airbus A400M airlifter expanded its capabilities as an air-to-air refuelling platform by successfully demonstrating air-to-air refuelling contacts with another A400M, Airbus reported on Monday 14 November. In two flights conducted from Seville, Spain the development aircraft performed more than 50 contacts in level flight and turns using the centreline hose and drum unit (HDU).
Airbus ephasizes that its A400M is the only tactical tanker with this third refuelling point, in addition to its underwing pods, enabling refuelling of large receivers such as another A400M or C-130. It has a basic fuel capacity of 63,500 litres, which can be increased with two extra cargo hold tanks carrying 7,200 litres each, and can refuel from the HDU at a rate of 2,000 litres (600 US gallons) per minute. The technique would allow the A400M to carry a 20 tonne payload more than 6,000nm / 11,000km non-stop from Paris, France to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The standard A400M aircraft has full provisions for air-to-air refuelling (AAR) operations already installed and only requires the rapid installation of the optional air-to-air refuelling kit to become a tanker.
Airbus Defence and Space on Monday 3 October reported it has successfully completed the maiden flight of the first new standard A330 MRTT Multi Role Tanker Transport. This model incorporates a number of enhancements introduced on the basic A330 as well as upgraded military systems as part of the company’s product improvement program.
The three-hour flight took place on 30 September and the crew reported that the aircraft performed in line with expectations. The new standard A330 MRTT features structural modifications, aerodynamic improvements giving a fuel-burn reduction of up to 1%, upgraded avionics computers and enhanced military systems. First delivery to customer Singapore is due in 2018.
A total of 51 A330 MRTTs have been ordered by 10 nations of which 28 have been delivered, according to Airbus. Apart from Singapore, France has ordered the aircraft. A joint purchase by the Netherlands and Luxembourg is to be finalized.
The Netherlands is ready to purchase two Airbus tanker/transport aircraft with Luxembourg, Dutch Defense minister Hennis Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert announced on Thursday 28 July. The aircraft will be NATO property and will be stationed at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands for pooling and sharing. Belgium, Germany, Norway and Poland intend to join the agreement at a later date.
The purchase of the MRTT A330 type aircraft is an important step in filling the notorious European tanker gap. Compared to the US, European nations individually and combined have very limited air-to-air refuelling capabilities.
The European Defence Agency (EDA) is closely involved in the purchase of the aircraft. Luxembourg and the Netherlands will have exclusive user rights. In addition to the purchase, the MRTT project also covers maintenance and operational deployment. The Netherlands leads the multinational collaboration project.
The new aircraft will be registered in the Netherlands and stationed at Eindhoven airbase, as reported previously here at Airheadsfly.com. A study will be carried out to determine whether European Air Transport Command, which is also stationed in Eindhoven, will be able to supervise the MRTT pool.
Costs and personnel will be allocated on the basis of the number of flying hours that each country needs. The expected life span of the fleet is 30 years and the investment budget is between €250 million EUR and 1 billion EUR.
The Netherlands and Luxembourg recorded the agreement in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The contract with Airbus was signed today. If Belgium, Germany, Norway and Poland decide to take part in the agreement, both the MoU and the quotation given by Airbus allow for expansion. If more countries do indeed decide to join, the design costs will be shared with these countries too, leading to lower costs for Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The number of A330 MRTT aircraft to be purchased could eventually rise to 8.
The 2 participating countries are examining the possibility of collaboration with France and the UK, among others, in relation to training and instruction as well as maintenance. France is set to receive its first A330 aircraft in 2018. The UK already has A330 MRTTs in service.
The 2 aircraft will be delivered from 2020. In the same year, the Royal Netherlands Air Force will start to gradually decommission its current two KDC-10 aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force is moving its formal production decision on the KC-46 tanker program—known as Milestone C—from June 2016 to August 2016 to allow additional time to implement the solution to a refueling boom loads issue identified during flight testing earlier this year.
The Air Force also released an updated projection from Boeing for initial KC-46 deliveries and the expected timing for delivery of the first 18 certified tanker aircraft, a milestone known as Required Assets Available (RAA). Due to ongoing complexities associated with qualification and certification of the aircraft’s centerline drogue and wing-aerial refueling pod (WARP) systems, and the previously announced higher volume of change incorporation to bring the first 18 aircraft up to the certification configuration, the first tanker delivery will move from March 2017 to August 2017 with the 18th aircraft delivered in January 2018.
The underlying production system remains on track, and Boeing will have more than 18 aircraft through the factory line and in various stages of final change incorporation and certification by August 2017. The first 18 aircraft will be equipped with refueling boom and centerline drogue refueling capabilities as well as all other contract required capability except WARPs. The WARP systems required to complete full contractual RAA will be delivered separately in October 2018.
Boeing continues its effort with 5 aircraft now in test (including the first production aircraft), 7 aircraft in final production build, and 8 aircraft in the supply chain – up to tail number 20.
Where’s a gas station when you need it? That’s exactly what’s going in the minds of a Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) KDC-10 crew as they look for the French C-135 Stratotanker that should be flying somewhere ahead of them. Seconds later, they find the French aircraft and move in closer. It’s an obvious metaphor for closing the infamous European tanker gap. The solution comes in two shapes: the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and the Airbus A400M.
Over the North Sea and to the crew of the KDC-10, that’s all distant music. As participants in the European Air Refuelling Training (EART) at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, they have just finished air-to-air refuelling (AAR) twelve F-16s that take part in action packed exercise Frisian Flag 2016. Somewhere ahead and beneath them, the French KC-135 also just finished refuelling fighter jets, as did the German Airbus A310 that’s also nearby.
That’s three air-to-air refuellers in the same patch of sky, a sight not often seen as tanker aircraft are usually hard to find in Europe. The overall goal of EART is to improve flexability, efficiency and effectiveness of the combined tanker force of all zeven nations (the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, France, Spain and Italy) that handed command over their assets over to the European Air Transport Command (EATC). From Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, EATC commands 19 tanker aircraft of various types from all seven nations. That number equals 65 percent of all AAR platforms available in Europe.
Compared to the hundreds of air refuelling aircraft available to the US, the European numbers fall far short, hence the ‘tanker gap’. However, that gap may soon be a thing of the past, given the increasing number of Airbus A400M available to France and Germany, plus Spain and Belgium in the near future. By 2025, EATC should have 80 or so A400Ms at its disposal, with roughly 40 air refuelling kits available for those aircraft. The new Airbus aircraft has been involved in AAR tests.
Moreover, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Poland are on course to jointly buy and operate the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). During EART, it emerged that a Memorandum of Understanding is to be signed during the NATO summit in July in Warsaw, with a contract for three or four aircraft to be signed that same month during the Farnborough Airshow.
The shared pool should grow to eight Airbus A330 MRTTs eventually. Belgium, Germany and Spain have already expressed interest in particpating in the program as well.
“EATC has been asked to harmonize A400M and A330 MRTT operations in the future”, says Colonel Jurgen van der Biezen, a RNLAF-delegate to the joint European command in Eindhoven. “What we are looking for, is an air-to-air refuelling hub that is very similar in operation to the European Heavy Airlift Wing operating from Hungary.”
Introducing the A400M and A330 MRTT as tankers increases EATC’s refuelling fleet to 69 assets, equal to 82 percent of all similar capacity in Europe. It’s a signifant increase compared to today’s situation, an increase that enables European nations to support their own – plus each other’s – operations.
It’s an idea that gets the thumbs up from all within EATC, just like the thumbs up shown by the crew of a Dutch KDC-10 tanker over the North Sea. They successfully performed some formation flying with the other two tankers in the same patch of sky. After leaving the formation, they are on their own again. But with a different feeling this time. There are others out there.