AirTanker, the company operating the U.K. 's (RAF) fleet of tanker-transport aircraft, has begun looking into ways to begin generating third-party revenue.
Company leaders hope to capitalize on Europe's chronic shortage of tanker aircraft by offering flying hours and capacity using their spare-200 Voyager tanker transports, potentially leasing them to other countries in military configuration when they are not required by the RAF.
“We are moving from a delivery phase into an operational one,” says CEO Phil Blundell. “And now we are looking at how we can deliver the best use out of the fleet of aircraft we have.”
As part of the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) program, AirTanker is buying 14 Voyagers to replace the RAF's elderly Vickers VC-10 and Lockheed TriStar tanker transports. During peacetime operations, though, not all the Voyagers will be required. Just nine of the aircraft will comprise the core fleet. The other five could be surged in the event of conflict.
During peacetime, the military equipment could be removed from the five spares, and they could be leased to charter airlines. However, AirTanker believes it would be better value to wet-lease them to other partner nations in a military configuration.
“The Defense Ministry has the benefit of these aircraft without having to pay for them to sit on the tarmac,” Blundell says. “They can be brought in to support operations at any time, if additional capacity beyond that of the core fleet is required, so it is capability without the fixed cost.”
It can take about a week to remove all the military equipment from the Voyagers, such as radio systems and refueling pods, and “blank” off the parts of the aircraft where that equipment had been connected. Therefore, AirTanker would prefer to keep the aircraft in the military configuration to reduce costs.
Other opportunities to raise third-party revenue include performing safety, maintenance and service checks on other operators' A330s at RAF Brize Norton, England. AirTanker is working to gain full C check status by the second quarter of 2014.
Separately, the Defense Ministry is exploring opportunities to share flight hours of the nine-aircraft core Voyager fleet with other European Union and NATO member nations. Under the plan, being promoted by the European Defense Agency (EDA), the RAF Voyager aircraft would be offered through NATO's Movement Coordination Center Europe, which coordinates the usage of such aviation assets. Borrowed assets are paid for as oneEquivalent Flight Hour, so if Country A lends a tanker to Country B for 1 hr., then Country B owes Country A three C-130 flight hours. Such pooling and sharing would benefit the U.K. by reducing the fixed costs of the fleet, AirTanker says.
“The U.K., [Defense Ministry] and the RAF have the capability through Voyager to deliver a significant part of the solution to Europe's air-to-air-refueling and transport requirements and to promote U.K. defense capability and expertise, should they wish to take it,” Blundell says. “The groundwork has been done by the EDA. There is now a clear policy in place, plus—critically—the political will to deliver it. At the same time, recognition of current gaps in capability as demonstrated in Mali, and the U.S. shift in strategic focus toward Asia and the Far East, add impetus to the program.”
Challenges remain, however. AirTanker's Voyagers have not yet refueled any RAF front-line combat aircraft. Clearances for the tanker to dispense fuel remain unsigned by the U.K. Military Aviation Authority (MAA). AirTanker said the clearances were imminent in January and continues to say they are imminent now.
Tanker training for front-line fast-jet aircrews could begin within days of receiving the MAA documentation, but until that is done, the RAF must continue to nurse the VC-10s and TriStars into the air for refueling missions. The RAF's fleet of Panavia Tornado GR4s would be the first to benefit from new tankers, as they have been cleared to refuel from the Voyager, following the completion of “hundreds” of prods by crews from an RAF test unit. Typhoon clearances are expected to follow, with other types in the inventory after that. But it is not clear, in the event of pooling and sharing, how quickly the clearances would be given for other NATO types to refuel from Voyager or who would pay for them.
In a deployment of RAFto Malaysia for a military exercise and participation in the Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition 2013 in March, the fighters were supported by a pair of . The NATO and Tornado Management Agency gave the clearances to refuel from those aircraft because Italian Eurofighters have already worked up the capability. Commanders did not want to rely on the VC-10s or TriStars in case they became unserviceable during the trip and delayed the inbound or outbound legs of the deployment.
Because of the tanker shortage experienced by the French air force during the Mali campaign, the French and Italian governments hurried through a clearance program so thatand Mirage 2000s could be refueled by KC-767s. The clearances were given after just a handful of sorties.
Meanwhile, AirTanker has also embarked on an in-house program to update the Voyager's defensive aids. Before the first aircraft was delivered, the British press reported that the Voyagers would not be able to fly into hostile airspace as they lack the right number of defensive aids. Each is fitted with two infrared countermeasure devices, which were deemed sufficient to handle threats in the Afghan theater when the aircraft were ordered. But changes in the threat picture have demanded that the Voyager be fitted with three systems.
Under the £20 million ($31 million) program formalized in March, the aircraft are being fitted with a third countermeasure, which could potentially allow it to operate directly from the U.K. into Afghanistan to support the military airbridge and next year's withdrawal.
AirTanker now has a fleet of four Voyagers: three multirole tanker transports and one A330 that will be converted to a tanker later. The fifth and sixth aircraft are also scheduled to be delivered this year.