Airbus Defence and Space has successfully demonstrated automatic air-to-air refueling (AAR) contacts with a fighter aircraft from a tanker’s refueling boom - the first time in the world that this has been done.
Airbus’ A310 MRTT aircraft performed six automatic contacts with an F-16 of the Portuguese Air Force in a demonstration of a technique which the company believes holds great promise for enhancing in-service AAR operations.
The system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce boom operator workload, improve safety, and optimize the rate of AAR in operational conditions to maximize combat efficiency. It could be introduced on the current production A330 MRTT as soon as 2019.
Initial approach and tracking of the receiver is performed by the tanker’s Air Refueling Operator (ARO) as usual. Innovative passive techniques such as image processing are then used to determine the receiver’s refueling receptacle position and when the automated system is activated, a fully automated flight control system directs the boom towards the receiver’s receptacle. The telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled in a range of ways including: manually by the ARO; a relative distance-keeping mode; or full auto-mode to perform the contact.
In the 21 March flight off the Portuguese coast, the tanker performed the scheduled six contacts, at flight conditions of 270KT and 25,000ft over a 1hr 15min test period. Both crews reported a faultless operation.
David Piatti, Airbus Test ARO, or “boomer”, on the tanker, said: “The most important thing was that the system could track the receptacle. It was very satisfying because it worked perfectly and we could perform the contacts with the automation switched on as planned. It will certainly reduce workload, especially in degraded weather conditions.”
The F-16 pilot, known by his callsign “Prime”, said: “The test mission was pretty uneventful and accomplished with no unexpected issues - which is a good sign. From the moment that the boomer accepted the contact the boom was immediately in the correct spot. For the contact itself, it was very precise and expeditious. You can notice the difference - the less that you feel in the cockpit then the more precise you know the tracking is.”
The imaging technology underlying the Automatic AAR technique was originally used by Airbus’ Space division to develop solutions for refueling satellites in space or for space debris removal and was further developed and applied by Airbus Defence and Space’s Incubator Laboratory for the tanking application.
The Airbus Defence and Space A330 MRTT is the only new generation strategic tanker/transport aircraft combat-proven and available today. The large 111 tonnes/ 245,000 lb basic fuel capacity of the successful A330-200 airliner, from which it is derived, enables the A330 MRTT to excel in air-to-air refueling missions without the need for any additional fuel tank.
The A330 MRTT is offered with a choice of proven air-to-air refueling systems including an advanced Airbus Defence and Space Aerial Refueling Boom System, and/or a pair of under-wing hose and drogue pods, and/or a Fuselage Refueling Unit.
Thanks to its true wide-body fuselage, the A330 MRTT can also be used as a pure transport aircraft able to carry up to 300 troops, or a payload of up to 45 tonnes/99,000 lb. It can also easily be converted to accommodate up to 130 stretchers for Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC).
To-date, a total of 51 A330 MRTTs have been ordered by nine nations (Australia, France, Luxembourg,Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom), with two (Australia and Saudi Arabia) having already placed repeat orders.