LONDON — The U.K. (RAF) has given an emergency clearance for its to refuel from the country’s new Voyager multi-role tanker transport aircraft.
The unusual decision is understood to have been made about two weeks ago, and will allow Typhoons to refuel from the Voyagers despite the fact that the U.K. Military Aviation Authority (MAA), the certification agency that normally approves such clearances, has not yet given the aircraft combination a Release to Service notice.
According to the U.K. defense ministry, the Typhoons have been given an Operational Emergency Clearance (OEC) by the MAA. Authority documentation states that an OEC is given when: “operations may require the clearance of equipment and material at short notice and where the operating risk is greater than that normally acceptable.”
Defense officials told Aviation Week that the OEC provides the RAF with the “flexibility” to use its fleets in the most effective way, “should the need arise.”
The nature of that need is not clear but could be related to the provision of a tanker for the Quick Reaction Alert role—Typhoons on ground alert to meet or intercept suspect aircraft. Among the most recent of these was a launch to escort a Pakistanon May 24. When the Typhoons are dispatched, a tanker is also launched—usually one of the RAF’s aging Vickers VC-10s in case the fighter aircraft need extra endurance. Recent poor dispatch rates on the VC-10 may have prompted commanders to consider a Voyager aircraft instead.
The RAF and AirTanker, the private company that owns and operates the Voyagers on the RAF’s behalf, are hopeful that the release to service documents for the Typhoon will be finalized “very soon.” In May, Airtanker was cleared to begin air-to-air refueling with the Panavia Tornado GR4. The first mission was launched on May 20.
Until that time AirTanker’s Voyagers have only been cleared to operate in the strategic air transport role flying troops and cargo. The aircraft also are cleared to carry out medevac missions.
AirTanker is not due to take on the refueling role in its entirety for another year, in May 2014, although clearances to begin air-to-air refueling had been expected much earlier. However, military certification authorities had been unhappy with the flight characteristics of the Cobham-designed High Speed-Variable Drag Drogue originally fitted to the hoses of the Voyager. These were changed back to the standard Sergeant-Fletcher-designed drogue currently fitted to the VC-10 and Tristars as well as to tankers from other countries.
Since the changes were made in early 2012, AirTanker has been waiting for the MAA to finalize the paperwork. The Panavia Tornado has been cleared to refuel from the Voyager for several months, but without its clearances, the Voyager was not authorized to pass fuel.
As part of the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft program, AirTanker will buy a total 14 Voyagers tankers to replace the RAF’s aging fleets of VC-10 and Lockheed Tristar tanker transports. The VC-10 is now expected to exit service in September 2013, while the Tristar will be retired in summer 2014.