New Airbus Tankers Enter Service as Teething Troubles Are Resolved
Airbus Military has taken orders for 28 A330 MRTT (multi-role tanker-transport) aircraft, and by the end of this year 13 are due to be in service. The program has encountered a number of teething troubles, but the company reports that they are being solved as the aircraft expands the envelope of its operational experience.
Australia has three of its five aircraft in service (which it designates as the KC-30A), with the remaining pair retained by Airbus Military as they undergo a boom enhancement program. The three aircraft in Royal Australian Air Force service will be used for refueling with the pods only while the enhancement is being implemented, tested and certified. Airbus Military said that operational clearance to refuel F/A-18 Hornet fighters is expected later this year.
Under the improvement program the KC-30As are getting a Wave 2 flight management system that makes mission planning easier. The new system also integrates various classified modes that were previously separated. Boom operations are improved through new control laws for large receivers and a stick-shaker to warn of reaching the outer edges of the boom’s envelope. These systems should be certified around September/October, and fully implemented by the end of 2012, according to Airbus Military.
Meanwhile, the British Royal Air Force’s first A330 MRTT (Voyager) aircraft was released to service on April 6 this year, and has been flying intensively on transport and training tasks. The second aircraft, a three-point refueler, is being used as part of the Typhoon and Tornado receiver clearance process, which also involves a Saudi tanker and Spanish Typhoons. Two more Voyagers are undergoing conversion by Cobham in the UK, while aircraft number five is now being modified at Getafe in Spain.
Three weeks ago, the Airtanker consortium announced that the remaining nine conversions would also be done in Spain, rather than by Cobham as previously planned. This was to ensure timely delivery to the RAF, Airtankers said.
Initial RAF refueling trials encountered a number of problems, including basket-spinning and fuel venting. Improvements to the basket and some software modifications cured the spinning problem, while a new coupling is under test. The venting that occurred with RAF Tornados was not encountered by Saudi Tornados, which have a different style of probe. Currently defensive improved provisions are being negotiated for RAF aircraft.
This month the Royal Saudi Air Force is due to take its second aircraft, the first having been retained at Airbus for aircrew training. The third of six is also due before the end of the year, and the RSAF is aiming for entry to service in the third quarter of 2012. The first of three aircraft for the United Arab Emirates conducted in-country evaluation with Mirage 2000 and F-16 receivers, and all three aircraft are to be delivered by the end of this year.
In terms of future sales prospects, Airbus has made an unsolicited offer to Australia for a sixth aircraft. France has a requirement for up to 14 tankers, for which Airbus Military has a study contract to define the requirement.
To support ongoing tanker programs, an A310 MRTT has been converted to test enhancements to the boom system, having been updated with technology from the A330 program. It began flying again last month, testing a dimming capability for the pilot director lights when operating in extreme external lighting conditions. It also has a new night-vision filter to ensure compatibility with the boom infrared illumination system.
This aircraft will also test a new advanced training function that allows synthetic aircraft to be displayed on the operator’s screen. Various receiver types can be simulated, as well as varying weather and turbulence conditions. An advanced debrief system is also being developed, allowing detailed after-tanking review by both receivers and air refueling operators.