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Airbus performs first automatic air-to-air refuelling

Photo: The first automatic contact between the A310 MRTT demonstrator and the F-16. Airbus DS


Airbus Defence and Space has performed the world’s first automatic air-to-air refuelling contact, the company announced on May 9. The trial involved boom-equipped Airbus A310 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) EC-HLA, which is employed by the company as a development aircraft, and a Portuguese Air Force F-16AM.

On March 21 the MRTT performed six automatic contacts with the F-16 over a 1hr 15min test period. The trial was conducted off the Portuguese coast, at a speed of 270kts and altitude of 25,000ft.

According to a statement from Airbus, ‘the system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce boom operator workload, improve safety, and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling in operational conditions to maximise combat efficiency.’

Airbus is offering automatic air-to-air refuelling on its in-production A330 MRTT as early as 2019.

The system involves a conventional approach and tracking by the receiver aircraft, performed by the tanker’s air refuelling operator (ARO). Next, passive techniques such as image processing are used to determine the position of the receiver’s refuelling receptacle. Once 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.

David Piatti, the Airbus Test ARO, or ‘boomer’, 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.”

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