Tag Archives: Stratotanker

AHF↑Inside: Ridin’ the Stratotanker

“First flight Boeing KC-46 delayed until summer,” aviation news headlines read recently. Over Germany, it’s of no concern to the three crew members of a 55 year old Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, belonging to the 174th Air Refuelling Squadron of the Iowa Air National Guard. Why? Because theirs is such a nice aircraft to fly, thanks especially to the four CFM-56 turbofan engines that sort of define the ‘R’ version of the KC-135. “These engines make it climb like a rocket,” says Major Joe Bousqet. “On the other hand, it’s a stable aircraft, which is perfect for our task: refuelling other aircraft.” We’ll have to wait until Summer to know if the KC-46 is capable of doing the same.

‘Climb like a rocket.’ The words ring in our ears as we roll down runway 27 at Geilenkirchen Airbase at five in the afternoon, with 105,000 pounds of jet fuel in our tanks. And indeed as soon as the KC-135 – normally based at Colonel Bud Day Field, Sioux City – rotates, Geilenkirchen vanishes beneath us at an impressive rate. A long left turn brings us to a north easterly heading towards Northern Germany, where we will fly a race track pattern for several hours.

Airheadsfly.com's mode of transportation on 18 March 2015. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Airheadsfly.com’s mode of transportation on 18 March 2015. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The crew gets to work prior to take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The crew gets to work prior to take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

It’s business as usual for Bousqet and his crew. They have been at Geilenkirchen for a week now and will remain there for another, supporting the local AWACS aircraft. They know their KC-135 is in high demand, not only here over Germany, but also in current operations anywhere. “Yeah, we get around,” says Bousqet, who in civilian life flies McDonnell Douglas MD-80 airliners in the US. But now, he’s on the lookout for our customer, an E-3 AWACS that’s supposed to fly somewhere in front of us.

Experience also our feature AHF↑Inside: NATO’s AWACS Nest

In the back, boom operator Staff Sgt. Mike Perez has taken his position at the boom operator’s station. “Most of this stuff is as old as the airplane itself, but it works,” he says while demonstrating the two joysticks that operate the boom that transfers the fuel to the customer aircraft, which, incidentally, glides into view beneath us, still 1,000 feet lower. The grey-white fuselage of the NATO AWACS is as easily recognizable as the large black radome over it. After we make radio contact, the E-3A approaches cautiously until only the cockpit and front section fills the glass screen that provides our boom operator which such a unique view of the world. It’s a great scene, especially with the setting sun later on.

With a calm voice, Perez guides the E-3’s pilot to where he should be, and finally moves the fuel nozzle at the end of the refuelling boom to where that should be: in the E-3’s fuel receptacle on top of the forward fuselage.

“Contact,” Perez tells the E-3 pilot. The fuel begins to flow and it marks the first of 17 more hook ups like this, although on most occasions there’s no fuel transferred. The E-3 pilots just practice staying in position ‘on the boom’, guided by Perez’s reassuring voice.

Meanwhile in the KC-135R’s cockpit, the two pilots monitor their instruments and the race track pattern on their screens. The Stratotanker’s office has been upgraded countless times, and now features partly ‘glass’ instruments. “That’s great to work with, but there’s still plenty of dials and gauges,” says co-pilot Lt. Caleb Barber, pointing to the dials in the middle of the console that show what the four CFM-56’s are up to. “Those haven’t changed much.”

Nevertheless, the KC-135 has seen many variants over the years. Boeing built no less than 732 KC-135s in Renton in Washington; the very first KC-135 first took flight on 31 August 1956. A lot of them have been retired already, but the with 414 Stratotankers still in service the most current KC-135Rs will be the mainstay of the US Air Force’s and Air National Guard’s tanker capability for years to come, until it’s successor – the KC-46A – is mission ready in numbers.

To be truthful, the KC-46 did fly late 2014, but without any air-refuelling equipment. Boeing is now installing it in the aircraft, and it won’t look and work like anything at all aboard the KC-135. “It gets a bit uncomfortable, lying here for hours at a time,” says Perez in the back of the KC-135 over Germany.

The boom operator has just chalked up the 16th hook up for that night. Evening has fallen and the E-3 is only faintly visible beneath us, just as we overfly the city of Bremershaven along the German coast. The receptacle is clearly lit however and in darkness, two more hook ups take place. In the cockpit, Bousqet and Barber prepare for the return to Geilenkirchen.

An E-3 in 'pre-contact' position. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
An E-3 in ‘pre-contact’ position. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
No setting sun yet for the KC-135. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
No setting sun yet for the KC-135. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Meanwhile in the States, preparations for the KC-46’s first fully equipped flight are being made, but delays in the program and all the turmoil that got the Boeing aircraft finally chosen over the Airbus KC-30 have given the KC-46 a bad start. The 2017 deadline of entry-into-service will quickly not be met. Nevertheless, the US intends to buy a total of 179 KC-46s, named Pegasus.

Back in European skies it’s dark with a bit of low cloud as our KC-135R is heading home, lined up for the Runway 27 at ILS approach to Geilenkirchen. At 400 feet, the Stratotanker breaks out of the clouds and the runway lights show themselves. As the wheels touch down there’s 32,000 pounds of fuel remaining. We burned 28,000 pounds of fuel ourselves and we gave 45,000 pounds away to a happy customer. It’s a scenario repeated countless times by the Stratotanker, who’s legendary name will keep ringing in the ears of KC-46 Pegasus crews for a long time to come.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): The KC-135R cockpit, with night falling outside. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

(Image © Dennis Spronk)
The legendary shape of the legendary Stratotanker. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Welcome aboard! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Welcome aboard! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The business end. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The business end. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After landing, the KC-135 is cared for by the ground crew. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After landing, the KC-135 is cared for by the ground crew. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

The real EART hour is approaching

Forget switching off some lights, the real EART hour is approaching! For the second year in a row several European nations are scrambling their military in-flight refuelling assets to show what the real deal of modern combat is about: keeping fighter jets in the air with the flying gas stations.

“As the air operations of Unified Protector over Libya in 2011 showed, we need to train together in advance for a smooth multinational operation,” the PR staff of the European Air Transport Command (EATC) writes in a statement on why the European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training (EART) is needed. “Moreover, the United States Forces are planning to deploy major parts of their air-to-air refuelling fleet out of Europe while only a few of the European Union member states operate tanker aircraft.”

Those EU nations are France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, but not all have their aircraft assigned to the joined pool. In contrary to the US forces, the tanker assets of the EU nations are less numerous and less standardised. While the US armed forces operates a massive fleet of 414 Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker (USAF), 59 McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) KC-10 Extender (USAF) and 72 KC-130T/J Hercules aircraft (US Marines Corps), European nations working together in the EATC can assign 26 tankers max.

Some of those European tanker aircraft will see action in the skies over the Netherlands, Denmark, Northern Germany and the North Sea North Sea from 13 April to 24 April 2015 during EART 2015. The tanker ops will come quite handy to the participants of NATO and the military alliance’s Partnership for Peace Air Forces while their combat aircraft are conducting offensive and defensive missions at the same time from Leeuwarden Airbase in the Netherlands during the large scale exercise Frisian Flag 2015.

An Italian Air Force KC-767 during a mission over Iceland (Image © Cpt. Jiri Cermak / Czech Air Force)
An Italian Air Force KC-767 during a mission over Iceland (Image © Cpt. Jiri Cermak / Czech Air Force)
An E-3 in 'pre-contact' position. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Air-to-air refuelling on a NATO E-3

EART 2015
EART 2015 is being run from Eindhoven Airbase further south, home to the transport and tanker pool managed by the European Air Transport Command. The French Air Force (Armée de l’Air) will contribute one or more of its 14 Boeing C-135F/FR Stratotankers. The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) sends one or more of its four Airbus A310 MRTTs, while Italy (Aeronautica Militare) supplies one or more of its four Boeing KC-767A aircraft. The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) will have at least one of its two McDonnell Douglas KDC-10s available. The Swedish TP 84 (KC-130) Hercules and the Royal Air Force’s Voyager (Airbus A330 MRTT) fleet are not assigned to the EATC. Spain has chosen not to participate with its two Boeing 707/KC-707s.

“The general purpose of the training is to create a realistic training environment to exchange information and practice among tanker and jet crews, as well as to enable certification processes between tanker and receiver aircraft,” the EATC’s PR staff writes.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image (top): A RNLAF KDC-10 (Image © Koninklijke Luchtmacht)

A Boeing C135R of the French Air Force after its first landing at the revamped Niamey airfield in Niger on 31 December 2014 (Image © Ministère de la Défense)
A Boeing C135R of the French Air Force after its first landing at the revamped Niamey airfield in Niger on 31 December 2014 (Image © Ministère de la Défense)

Germanwings A320 crashed in the Alps

UPDATED 16:40 UTC (17:40 Paris time) | A sad day for the families of 144 passengers and six crew on board Germanwings Airbus A320 with flight number 4U 9525 en route from Barcelona to Düsseldorf on Tuesday 24 March 2015. Due to still unknown reason the jet dropped from cruise altitude in a relatively short period of time of 10 minutes and crashed into the French Alps. Initial French reports indicate there are no survivors. The victims are said to mostly from Spain, Germany and Turkeyy. One Dutch and one Belgian victim are also reported.

French president Hollande confirmed the crash and the unlikeliness of findings survivors. French air traffic control apparently raised the alarm almost an hour after take off, at 09:47 UTC, when it was unable to reach the crew while the plane showed a clear rate of descent of about 3,000 to 4,000 feet per minute. Relatively shortly afterwards the disintegrated wreckage was found in mountainous terrain near the villages of Prads-Haute-Bléone and Digne-les-Bains, with the larger town of Barcelonnette, 65 miles (100km) from the city of Nice in Southern France, close by. The weather reports indicate fine conditions at the time of the crash.

58,000 flight hours
The crashed aircraft with registration code D-AIPX is with 24 years in service with the Lufthansa Group – Germanwings’ mother company – one of the older A320s in the fleet. Since its delivery in February 1991 it had accumulated approximately 58,000 flight hours. Shortly after the crash the Germanwings website was offline apart from a short message about the crash and where to call to for relatives of those on board. Among them likely about 45 Spanish citizens, according to the Spanish deputy prime minister on Tuesday afternoon.

French Air Force
According to radar images shown on Flightradar24 a French Air Force C-135FR (id FAF4012) from Istres was flying circuits near the crash site Tuesday afternoon. The French version of the Boeing KC-135 tanker was flying circuits as a communications relay for the rescue services before it was relieved by a Boeing E-3F AWACS from BA702 Avord.

The French Air Force also sent up a Dassault Mirage 2000 for (photo) recon duties, while a Eurocopter (Airbus Helicopters) AS550 Fennec of EH 5/67 based at Orange and a Super Puma of EH 1/44 based at Solenzara were scrambled. The nearest government rotary wing were Gendarmerie (national police) EC145s based at Aiglun/Lt. Collard in Digne-les-Bains. Three of these were in the air, as well as three Gendarmerie EC350 Ecureuil choppers. The French Army sent two Puma medium-size helicopters to support the Gendarmerie, with a third on stand-by.

Common airliner
The Germanwings A320 crash comes only three months after a similar aircraft of AirAsia went down in bad weather near Indonesia. The type is one of the most common airliners in use, with more than 6,415 delivered to date in various versions and derivatives like the A319 and A321.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editors Marcel Burger & Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A Germanwings A320 taking off (Image (CC) Sebaso)

French Air Force C135 tanker leaving Istres for Al Dhafra, UAE (Image © Armée de l'Air)
From the archives: a French Air Force C-135F tanker leaving Istres (Image © Armée de l’Air)

First flight: Boeing KC-46 makes curtain call

The curtains were about to close on 2014, but in the end Boeing did on Sunday 28 December what it commited to earlier this year. From the Boeing Everett facility at Paine Field near Seattle, the first KC-46A Pegasus took the skies at 9:30 AM local time for a flight to nearby Boeing Field, where it landed safely after systems testing and being in the air for 3 hours and 32 minutes.  The flight will no doubt be heralded as a milestone for the US Air Force’s troubled KC-X program. But in reality, the KC-46A has yet to fly.

What rotated from Paine Field’s runway, was a Boeing 767-200 registered N461FT and wearing a standard grey US Air Force coat of paint, albeit without titles. And what’s more importantly missing, is the equipment needed for its air-to-air refueling role.The KC-46A will use 3D camera technology for air refueling operations. The new tanker will feature both the boom and drogue methods to deliver the “gas” to other airborne aircraft.

The first fully equipped flight is still at least nine months away. Three more aircraft will follow, after which serial production of about 179 KC-46A tankers should begin. Starting 2017, they will replace the dozens and dozens of old, battered Boeing KC-135s that formed the backbone of US air-to-air refueling capability for decades. Also, the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender will make way for the KC-46A. Poland is mentioned as a likely export customer. Modified tanker versions of the Boeing 767 are already in service with Italy, Japan and Colombia, and soon Brazil.

A realistic scenario? (Image © Boeing)
A realistic scenario? (Image © Boeing)

The KC-X/KC-46 program has a troubled history, however. If the US wasn’t overly protective of its own economy, the KC-135 and KC-10 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 program, but fraud was involved and prison sentences were given to those involved.

The contract was canceled, 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.

Since then, the program hasn’t been without delays. Most prominent was the wiring in the first aircraft, that needed replacements because of malfunctions. The delays are causing a cost overrun of 1.5 billion USD over the original program development budget of 4.9 billion USD. It’s therefore no wonder Boeing felt the need the get first airplane flying before the end of the year.

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. The question whether the KC-46A can achieve that same milestone, remains unanswered for some time to come.

© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest

The pre-KC-46A on its maiden flight on 28 December 2014 (Image © Boeing)
The pre-KC-46A on its maiden flight on 28 December 2014 (Image © Boeing)

US Reaction: Eagles and Stratotanker to the Baltics

A Mildenhall 100 ARW KC-135 refuels an F-15C Eagle over Iceland during a training mission on 9 November 2013 (Image © Airman 1st Class Dana J. Butler / USAF)
A Mildenhall 100 ARW KC-135 refuels an F-15C Eagle over Iceland during a training mission on 9 November 2013 (Image © Airman 1st Class Dana J. Butler / USAF)

The US Air Force will send six additional McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) F-15C Eagle air superiority fighters and a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker to Šiauliai Airbase in Lithuania as a reaction the current crisis between Russian and Ukraine.

The announcement follows US Defence Secretary Chuch Hagel’s testimony to the Senate about augmenting the NATO run Baltic Air Policing. On 4 March Sweden also strengthened its Baltic defences by forward basing a pair of JAS 39 Gripens at Visby airport on the island of Gotland with leaving the possibility open for further increases.

Four F-15C fighters are already based at Šiauliai, where they took over the standard four plane mission from the Belgian Air Component F-16s. All current and new Eagles come from the 493rd Fighter Squadron “Reapers” of the 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath, England. The KC-135 comes from the 351st Air Refueling Squadron to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing based at RAF Mildenhall, a bit more than a stone’s throw from Lakenheath.

View Larger Map
The Baltic Air Policing mission rotates every half a year between NATO’s member states. The former Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are since 2004 part of the military alliance. Since they lack proper air defence assets themselves, other NATO members jump in on the joint task to protect the aerospace of its member nations.

Among the regulars in the Baltics are the Czech Air Force Gripens that fly with 211. squadron. The units commander recently gave an extensive interview to AIRheads↑Fly. Read the full exclusive AHF↑Inside: The Czech Prize Fighter here.

© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Marcel Burger

Check out the USAFE Orbat at Scramble.nl

A pair of F-15Cs train an interception with a Lithuanian Air Force L-39 Albatros during an earlier deployment in 2008 (Image © USAF)
A pair of F-15Cs train an interception with a Lithuanian Air Force L-39 Albatros during an earlier deployment in 2008 (Image © USAF)