Airbus Defence and Space has announced the world’s first automatic air-to-air refuelling contact involving a large receiver aircraft. The trial, conducted off the Spanish coast on June 20, involved the company’s A310 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) development aircraft and a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A receiver.
The milestone follows an earlier refuelling event last year in which automatic air-to-air (A3R) refuelling was demonstrated using a Portuguese Air Force F-16AM fighter as receiver.
The latest trial was a joint operation with the RAAF, which provided test pilots and flight test engineers from the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU). In all, the A310 MRTT performed seven automatic contacts with the RAAF KC-30A.
According to the manufacturer, the A3R system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce refuelling boom operator workload, improve safety, and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling in operational conditions. Airbus is now preparing to introduce the system on the A330 MRTT.
During initial approach of the receiver, boom control is performed by the tanker’s air refuelling operator (ARO) as usual. Passive techniques including image processing are then used to determine the receiver’s refuelling receptacle position. Once the A3R system is activated, fully automated flight control software flies and maintains the boom aligned with the receiver’s receptacle. To perform the contact, the telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled manually by the ARO, in relative distance-keeping mode, or in full auto-mode.
David Piatti, who acted as Airbus test ARO on the A310, said: “It was extremely impressive to see how accurately the A3R system tracks the receiver. It can be very useful to be able to refuel another tanker or transport, for example to extend its deployment range or to avoid taking fuel back to base, but it is also a challenging operation and this system has the potential to reduce workload and the risk involved.”
Squadron Leader Lawry Benier, executive officer for ARDU, said: “It’s very encouraging to come to Spain and see the progress that’s been made with A3R, and be able to witness it firsthand refuelling our KC-30A.”
He added: “Refuelling large receivers is a role RAAF has conducted extensively on operations and exercises, allowing us to extend the reach and responsiveness of our air mobility fleet, as well as keep surveillance aircraft in the air for longer.”
RAAF KC-30A fleet
The first KC-30A for the RAAF was handed over at Getafe, Spain in December 2010, with delivery to the RAAF following in June 2011. The fifth and final aircraft was similarly handed over in November 2012 and delivered to Australia in early December that year. The KC-30A’s first operational flight with the RAAF took place in September 2011 and initial operational capability with No 33 Squadron was announced in February 2013.
In July 2015 it was formally announced by the Minister for Defence that the RAAF was to acquire another pair of KC-30A MRTTs, both converted from civilian A330 aircraft previously operated by Qantas Airlines. Both were converted to MRTT configuration by Airbus Defence & Space in Getafe, with the Australian Department of Defence having signed an update to the existing acquisition contract for the two aircraft and associated conversions at a cost of approximately AUS$408m (US$314.5m). The first of these was delivered in August last year.