Tag Archives: KC-135

Press Play | Looking for more tankers in European skies

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.

Goal

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.

Airbus A400M

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.

(Image © Vincent Kok)
Two F-16s taking part in Frisian Flag 2016 join up prior to refuelling. (Image © Vincent Kok)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Polish F-16 is about to move into position behind the KDC-10. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Participants of the European Air Refuelling Training (EART) on the tarmac at Eindhoven airbase. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

MRTT

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.

Harmonize

“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.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Video filming, editing and © Vincent Kok – Orange Avenue Filmworks
Featured image: On the look out for tankers over the North Sea. (Image © Vincent Kok)

A RNLAF F-16 pilot gives the thumbs up. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A RNLAF F-16 pilot gives the thumbs up. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
More customers for the Dutch KDC-10. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
More customers for the Dutch KDC-10. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Polish F-16 sneaks up on the KDC-10 from behind. (Image © Vincent Kok)
A Polish F-16 sneaks up on the KDC-10 from behind. (Image © Vincent Kok)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
A French C-135 Stratotanker beging inspected prior to its next flight. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Rafale, Raptor & Typhoon join forces in the US

In December, French Dassault Rafales and British Eurofighter Typhoons meet US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors during exercise Trilaterale Initiative (TEI) at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. The three fighter jet types will operate alongside eachother for the first time during this exercise, which lasts until 18 December.

The French contingent arrived at Langley this week after an Atlantic crossing that orginated at Saint Dizier airbase in France. They brought six Rafales, two CF-135 Stratotankers and 150 personnel.

Royal Air Force

The RAF will bring Typhoons and 175 personnel, although the recent sending of UK Typhoons to battle so-called Islamic State may have an impact on this. The US Air Force provides 500 personnel and the state-of-the-art F-22, that saw its combat debut over Syria last year and its first deployment to Europe this year.

US Air Force F-15 Eagles and T-38 Talons will serve as adversaries during Trilaterale Initiative, while E-3 AWACS and KC-135 tanker aircraft provide support. First orientation flights for the exercise started on Friday 4 December.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image: A French Rafale pilot flies the French flag. (Image © Armée de l’Air)

A US Air Force F-22 Raptor. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A US Air Force F-22 Raptor. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoon takes off at Nellis (Image © LAC Michael Green / 28SQN AFID-CBR / Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence)
A Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoon. (Image © LAC Michael Green / 28SQN AFID-CBR / Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence)

First flight ‘real’ KC-46 Pegasus

In reality the KC-46A has yet to fly, we reported on 28 December 2014 as a Boeing 767-200 destined to become the very first KC-46, took off from Boeing Field. That reality came true on Friday 25 September 2015, as the first fully configured KC-46A Pegasus lifted off from Boeing Field near Seattle.

The flight in December marked the first flight of the Boeing 767-200 that was to become the KC-46. The aircraft back then was missing its air-to-air (AAR) refueling boom, plus other equipment needed for AAR. Since, the missing stuff was added to the aircraft, the first of nearly 180 KC-46s destined to replace large numbers of Boeing KC-135 tankers in the US Air Force and Air National Guard.

A T-38 Talon and F-16 supported today’s flight, which lasted four hours.  During the flight, Boeing test pilots performed operational checks on engines, flight controls and environmental systems and took the tanker to a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet prior to landing.

Followig flight will involve testing of the AAR boom and wing aerial refueling pods (WARPs). Before the end of the year, the KC-46 will begin conducting aerial refueling flights with a number of US Air Force aircraft.

Troubled The KC-46 program has a troubled history, however. If the US wasn’t overly protective of its own economy, the KC-135 would already be retired to the Arizona desert, with Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft taking their place. Initially, in 2003 Boeing indeed won the bid for the KC-X program, but fraud was involved and prison sentences were given to those involved. The contract was cancelled, and a new bid opened. In February 2008, the Pentagon awarded the contract to Northrop Grumman and Airbus Defense & Space, who had entered the A330 MRTT – aka KC-45 – together. Following a Boeing protest, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the selection and in the end recommended a new bid. In February 2011, Boeing finally had its way and was awarded the KC-X contract. Meanwhile, the A330 MRTT has been providing useful service with several air forces worldwide, such as the Royal Air Force – as Airheadsfly.com found during an exclusive visit. © 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest Featured image (top): The Boeing KC-46 inflight. (Image © Boeing)

Hungarian Gripens’ first reach for the tanker

Hungarian Air Force Saab Gripen pilots performed air-to-air refueling for the first time last June, flying alongside Swedish pilots and using a US Air Force KC-135 as a tanker aircraft. The sorties were flown over Hungary and also involved a Swedish Air Force two seater Saab Gripen, probably as a result of the crash of a Hungarian two seater last May.

The exercise was held between 21 June and 30 June at Kecskemét airbase in central Hungary. “To get the right mission strength, we need to have air-to-air refueling, that’s why we turned to the US to get some AAR capability and initial training,” said Hungarian air force Brig. Gen. Csebe Ugrik.

Three instructor pilots from the Swedish air force Gripen Operational Testing and Evaluation unit were responsible for the training syllabus, basic training and the Hungarian instructor pilot training. After three days of academics taught by representatives from the two guest air forces involved, the pilots took flight for hands-on familiarization.

The US tanker and crew involved, belonged the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall in the UK.

(Image © US Air Force /  Senior Airman Kate Thornton)
(Image © US Air Force / Senior Airman Kate Thornton)

Hours
The tanker and Gripen aircrew flew approximately six hours daily for six days. After days of performing only dry contacts with the tanker, the pilots were confident enough and took fuel for the first time, proving they were ready to perform air refueling safely and correctly.

Hungarian Gripen pilot Lt. Col. Tamas Szvat commented: “Now we could finally start this training and get this very important force multiplier capability for the Hungarian Gripen fleet. We now have  a capability the Hungarian air force has never had before.”

Featured image (top): As seen from the tanker. (Image © US Air Force /  Senior Airman Kate Thornton)

(Image © US Air Force /  Senior Airman Kate Thornton)
(Image © US Air Force / Senior Airman Kate Thornton)

 

Feature: Closing the tanker gap with EART

No air power without air-to-air-refueling. But also, no air-to-air refueling without certifications, clearances, bilateral agreements between countries and heaps of paperwork. The infamous European ‘tanker gap’ perhaps is not a matter of aircraft after all, but a matter of overcoming bureaucracy and inefficiency, it appears during the current European Air-to-Air Refueling Training (EART) at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands. If anything, participating tanker crews are determined to work together as closely as possible.

The platform at Eindhoven usually houses just two Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tanker aircraft, but until 24 April an Airbus A310 MRTT from Germany, an Italian Air Force KC-767 plus a French Air Force KC-135R join the two Dutch aircraft. Together with their crews, all aircraft participate in EART, an initiative started by the Eindhoven-based European Air Transport Command (EATC), which commands large parts of the military air transport and tanker fleets of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain.

 

Libya
This exercise specifically for tanker aircraft originated from lessons learned during Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011, says Eric van Osch, attached to EATC and a flight engineer on the KDC-10. “During those flights all nations used the same standardized procedures, but nevertheless we noticed slight variations in planning, radio communication and other operational details. Those variations made efficient use of available tankers hard at times. This exercise here at Eindhoven is held to harmonize operations, get to know each other even better and use our joint assets more efficiently.”

The current shared feeling is that European tanker capacity is sufficient in peace times, but falling behind in major operations or during large scale conflict. Optimal use or available aircraft and purchase of new tankers should close this ‘gap’.

(Image © Dennis Spronk)
The German A310 MRTT and Italian KC-767 in one shot. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
A shot of its own for the French KC-135. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Frisian Flag
For two weeks, the aircraft participating in EART refuel fighter aircraft that participate in Frisian Flag 2015. Today, the Dutch KDC-10 is joined in the air by four Polish F-16Cs and four Dutch F-16AMs, while the Italian KC-767 supplies fuel to other fighters. The Italians and French are able to refuel using both the boom and probe and drogue method, while the Dutch and Germans only use the boom and drogue method respectively. The US Air National Guard F-15 Eagles currently at Leeuwarden are only allowed to refuel on the French tanker. Once more, an example of clearances, certifications and other bureaucratic headaches.

The EART tankers fly twice a day, giving away precious fuel to Frisian Flag players. Air-to-air refueling allows the fighter pilots to stay close to their target area, a necessity in current operations around the globe.

Thirsty for fuel, waiting on the left wing. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Thirsty for fuel, waiting on the left wing. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
And stuffed full of fuel, waiting on the right wing for their formation to finish refueling. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
And stuffed full of fuel, waiting on the right wing for their formation to finish refueling. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Study of an F-16. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Study of an F-16. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

European pool
Modern air power requires air-to-air refueling and tankers are said to be in short supply in Europe. Several nations have joined forces and are looking to buy at least four A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft from Airbus, with a request for proposal expected soon. These aircraft will serve as a joint pool for the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Norway. NATO will pay for the aircraft and they will operate from Eindhoven, with forward operating bases in Norway and Poland. Deliveries start in 2019 at the earliest. Dutch 334 squadron will likely be absorbed into the new European tanker unit.

“That means the end for the fantastic KDC-10 in our fleet”, says Van Osch, who has flown on KDC-10s since the aircraft was introduced into Dutch service twenty years ago, although both KDC-10s were actually built in the seventies and used by charter airline Martinair before. “It’s a great and fantastic, stable platform for air-to-air refueling. And of course, it has lots of character.”

Racetrack
Dutch Viper pilots flying next to us have ear nor eye for any of that. They are looking for gas and are happily supplied with exactly that by our KDC-10, which is orbiting the ‘Shell’ racetrack over the North Sea. Another five minutes and some friendly waving later, they disappear to continue their Frisian Flag mission.

 Greeting to you all! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Greeting to you all! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A flock of Vipers. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A flock of Vipers. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Observe
During EART, air crews fly along on board each other’s aircraft to observe variations in procedures.  These variations are discussed back at Eindhoven, where academics also take place. Ground personnel is also involved, with turnaround times for aircraft during the exercise being shorter than usual. This year’s EART follows up last year’s first successful edition, which was also held at Eindhoven. Participating crews are enthusiastic about it. According to EATC there’s a lot of potential for growth, with future exercises possibly held elsewhere also.

EART allows more efficient use of European tanker aircraft, while the number of available tankers is set to grow. The European tanker gap seems to close slowly but steadily, just like another F-16 pilot who slowly but steadily approaches our KDC-10 and gets to hear the word he wants to hear at the end: contact!

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest

(Image © Dennis Spronk)
The Italian KC-767 during preparations for its next flight. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Most of the EART-flying takes place over the sea. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Most of the EART-flying takes place over the sea. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
An F-16 pilot await his turn to refuel. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
An F-16 pilot await his turn to refuel. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
(Image © Dennis Spronk)
View on the French KC-135. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A flying gas station under a great looking sky. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A flying gas station under a great looking sky. (Image © Elmer van Hest)