BAE Systems is proposing air-to-air refueling as a new mission for its BAe 146/Avro RJ family of regional airliners.

The company believes there is a potential market for a small, relatively inexpensive refueling aircraft either for use in the tactical mission or as a low-cost tanker trainer for countries with fleets of strategic tankers such as the Airbus A330 MRTT or the Boeing KC-135.

The idea was considered back in the 1990s when the company was actively marketing the airliner for the tactical transport role as the 146STA (Sideloading Tactical Airlifter). But BAE believes there is a market for a small-scale tanker to refuel rotary-wing aircraft, such as the V-22 Osprey and even UAVs thanks to the ability of the aircraft to fly at around 120 kt.

Proximity flights conducted with both the BAe 146-200 and the Avro RJ85 with a Hawk jet trainer behind showed the aircraft had a relatively “benign” aerodynamic environment thanks mainly to the ability of pilots to modulate the power from the inboard and outboard engines. The company is studying a number of options including adding auxiliary fuel tanks in the cabin, giving the aircraft a potential transferable load of 18 tons. The aircraft could feature a single or dual-hose drogue unit (HDU) at the rear of the cabin.

“All the new tanker aircraft are larger than the aircraft they are replacing,” said Mark Taylor, business director engineering for BAE Systems Regional Aircraft, speaking Sept. 10 at the Defense Services Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition in London, where the concept was launched. “Air forces do not need their $100 million aircraft up in the air for flight refueling training.”

Taylor suggests that during air-to-air refueling training, 90% of the connections, or “prods,” made by aircraft are dry, with no fuel transferred at all.

The idea of a tactical tanker is not unusual. Back in 2006, Israel Aerospace Industries and Gulfstream revealed they were working on a concept for a tanker based on the G550 business jet capable of carrying 25,000 kg (55,000 lb.) of fuel.

The company has enjoyed a recent run of success with a series of multi-mission conversions of 146s and Avro RJs. The U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) is currently using two BAe 146-200QC purchased from TNT modified under an urgent operational requirement for troop transport in Afghanistan. The two aircraft were deployed for operations in theater at the end of February, although one had to be ferried back to the U.K. after being damaged in a freak hailstorm at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in April. The aircraft has since been repaired and returned to operations at the end of August after suffering significant damage to moveable surfaces. The use of the aircraft by the RAF has spurred foreign interest from two other air arms including the Hungarian air force, which was looking at three aircraft, but this has not proceeded further.

The company also has been working with Qinetiq on the introduction of an RJ100 for use by the Empire Test Pilots School. “We were able to demonstrate that the aircraft had some interesting flight characteristics at the edge of the envelope,” Taylor said. A second aircraft, an RJ70, is currently being fitted with flight test instrumentation and a ballast transfer system for use by the organization.