Tag Archives: AirTanker

AirTanker: Voyagers for joint European use

AirTanker, the company behind the Royal Air Force (RAF) Airbus A330 Voyager program, is currently in talks with the RAF on supporting the transport and air-to-air refueling (AAR) needs of other allied nations. This should accelerate the introduction into service of more European Airbus Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft.

AirTanker provides the RAF with Voyager MRTT aircraft, including maintenance and pilot, crew and engineer training. The company now seeks to offer this service to other nations as well. Future cooperation could include shared training and expertise or the pooling and sharing of assets across NATO and Europe.

Talks were also held with the European Defence Agency (EDA), AirTanker confirms. Under an EDA-initiative, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland have set out to buy a shared fleet of four MRTT aircraft. France has also ordered the type, while countries such as the Czech Republic are desperate for added transport and AAR capabilities. The EDA pointed to a European ‘tanker gap’ years ago, and AirTanker’s recent talks are aimed at filling this gap.

“The RAF remains our core customer but we are now working with it and the MOD to explore opportunities to extract additional value from the Voyager program”, AirTanker CEO Phil Blundell said.

AirTanker’s fleet consists of twelve transport and AAR capable Voyager aircraft, the last of which was delivered to the AirTanker hub at Brize Norton airbase in the UK in June. Two more Voyager are scheduled for delivery in January and September 2016.

Nine aircraft form the core of the RAF tanker capability. The type is now almost a year into its first operational deployment, supporting fighter aircraft during their missions over Iraq and Syria. US AV-8B Harrier and French Dassault Rafales also received fuel from Voyagers.

Agreements allow for civil use of the Voyager aircraft already. One Voyager was converted to a regular Airbus A330 and delivered to Thomas Cook airlines in May 2014.

More on AirTanker’s operations should follow at Airheadsfly.com later this year.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image: The Voyager in action (Image © AirTanker)

How safe are the civilian air tankers?

How safe is outsourcing of military commodities such as in-flight refueling? And how much worn out are the aircraft in use by civilian operators? Those questions are legit after an Omega Air Refueling Services Boeing KC-707 suffered an explosion of one of its four engines shortly after take-off. The incident occurred already on 10 April 2015, but came back into light this week after the US National Transportation Safety Board released details of the incident.

Fortunately, the KC-707 with a crew of five landed safely in Victorville Airport in California after taking off from Point Mugu Naval Air Station earlier. Only then ground personnel / investigators found damaged turbine blades, holes in the turbine exhaust as well as in the engine and some minor damage to the outboard aileron. From the NTSB report: “After departure a heavy vibration was felt in engine 1 as the airplane was climbing through 17,000 feet. The engine was shut down (while still in climb). The pilots reported that parts could be seen exiting the turbine section of the engine.”

(Image © AirTanker)
AHF↑Inside: Voyager on fast forward

The April 2015 incident is not the first with Omega. On 19 May 2011 a similar Omega KC-707 crashed at Point Mugu NAS. Back then a weakness in engine 2 made it fall off the plane, taking engine 1 with it and starting a fire. The NTSB concluded that the maintenance by Omega was perfect, but that the previous owner (reportedly Pan Am) had failed to follow redesign specifications, according to the federal crash investigators.

In Europe the Royal Air Force has outsourced all its in-flight refueling capability, but here it are brand-new Airbus A330 MRTT “Voyager” aircraft operated by AirTanker that do the job. So in the United Kingdom there will never be questions about how well former owners were to the machines.

Currently Omega Air Refueling Services has a fleet of two KC-707s (including the damaged one) and a McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tanker. But the engine problem was quickly overshadowed positively by the first air-to-air-refueling ever of a Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle on 22 April 2015. Executed by an Omega KC-707, the drone was provided gas while flying a pattern over the Atlantic Test Ranges of the Chesapeake Bay. It marked the first in-flight refueling ever of an unmanned aircraft.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image: The Omega KC-707 starred in the first air-to-air refueling ever of a drone, on 22 April 2015 over Chesapeake Bay with gas provided to a US Navy Northrop Grumman X-47B experimental aircraft (Image © US Navy)

Very cool AirTanker air-to-air movie

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 Royal Air Force, released a very cool air-to-air video from its aircraft on the mission. Featuring, of course, the employees of its customer: fighter jocks and transport crews of 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. In total 14 Airbus A330MRTT are due to be delivered, with nine-aircraft as the core fleet and five as the so-called surge fleet.

The core-fleet is operated by RAF crews from 10 and 101 squadron, the surge fleet by AirTanker with civilian pilots, many of whom double as sponsored reservists with the RAF. Those “surge” aircraft are available for lease – including on the civilian market – but will be drawn back into service if the RAF needs them. AirTanker is planned to be at full strength by the end of 2016.

Airheadsfly.com visited AirTanker earlier this year and we were impressed by what we saw and heard. Check it out here!

© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editors Marcel Burger and Elmer van Hest

Milestone for RAF Voyager fleet

The Royal Air Force Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) Voyager fleet reached a major milestone on Thursday 30 July with the acceptance of all nine current aircraft within the RAF fleet. The aircraft, managed by AirTanker, includes eight fully military converted aircraft and one aircraft in civil configuration, flown by AirTanker.

A ceremony took place in AirTanker’s hangar at RAF Brize Norton, where the Voyager fleet is flown by 10 and 101 squadron crews. The Voyager fleet amassed close to 14,000 flight hours since operations began in December 2012. Over a quarter of a million passengers were flown to destinations worldwide, including Afghanistan and the Falkland Islands.

Voyager is now cleared to refuel Tornado and Typhoon fighter aircraft, plus C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. An RAF Voyager also recently and successfully supported the Airbus A400M ‘Atlas’ test program in Spain. Earlier at the Farnborough International Airshow in July, UK Minister for Defence Philip Dunne, confirmed that the Voyager program was delivered on time and within budget.

Thomas Cook
Another five Voyager aircraft are on order, and these will form the ‘surge’ fleet; they are available for lease to airlines, but can be reverted to military roles quickly if need. In June, AirTanker announced the future lease of one of these aircaft to Thomas Cook Airlines.

Only last May, Airheadsfly.com got the inside look of AirTanker and Voyager operations. Read all about it here.

© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest

(Image © AirTanker)
RAF Voyager MRTT at their Brize Norton base. (Image © AirTanker)

Voyager on fast forward

“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.

(Image © AirTanker)
A Voyager on its way. (Image © AirTanker)

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.

(Image © AirTanker)
Advanced cameras offer an excellent hi-def outside view. (Image © AirTanker)

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.

Las Vegas
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.”

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
The Airbus A330 MRTT cockpit is virtually identical to that of the civil Airbus A330 airliner, save the working station of the Mission Systems Operator (MSO), who is seated directly behind the co-pilot, facing backwards. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Training School
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.

(Image © AirTanker)
Voyager is on 24/7 stand by to support Eurofighter Typhoons guarding UK airspace. (Image © AirTanker)

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.

(Image © AirTanker)
AirTanker’s aircraft could become a familiar sight in commercial aviation as well. (Image © AirTanker)

Clocking up
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.

(Image © AirTanker)
There’s room for 291 troops in there. (Image © AirTanker)

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

(Image © AirTanker)
A Royal Air Force Tornado takes fuel from the right wing refuelling station. (Image © AirTanker)
(Image © AirTanker)
Brize Norton on windy spring day this May. (Image © AirTanker)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
AirTanker’s main customer is the Royal Air Force, with the contract lasting until 2035. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © AirTanker)
Ready to go: a crowded flight line at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. (Image © AirTanker)