AirTanker, the company charged with providing the U.K. (RAF) with air-to-air refueling capability, has been cleared to begin inflight refueling.
The long-awaited clearance, granted by the U.K. Military Aviation Authority (MAA) on May 16, means that RAF Panavia Tornado crews can now start refueling training from the newVoyager tankers. Refueling clearances with the will follow later along with other aircraft in the inventory.
The first operational tanker flight launched from AirTanker’s main operating base at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, on May 20 and the aircraft delivered fuel to several Tornados.
Until now AirTanker’s Voyagers have only been cleared to operate in the strategic air transport role flying troops and cargo. The aircraft are also cleared to carry out the medical evacuation mission.
AirTanker is not due to take on the refueling role in its entirety for another year, in May 2014. Clearances to begin air-to-air refueling had been expected much earlier, but military certification authorities were unhappy with the flight characteristics of the Cobham-designed High Speed-Variable Drag Drogue (HSVDD) 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 tankers from other countries.
Since the changes were made in early 2012, AirTanker has been waiting for the MAA to sign off on the final paperwork. The Panavia Tornado has been cleared to refuel from the Voyager for several months, but the Voyager without its clearances was not able to pass fuel.
Phill Blundell, CEO of AirTanker, said: “We’re delighted to have achieved a significant milestone against the program, something that has been made possible by the hard work of all of those involved. It represents another important step toward full-service capability.”
As part of the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) program, AirTanker will buy 14 Voyager tankers to replace the RAF’s aging fleets of Vickers 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 the summer of 2014.
Airtanker has a fleet of four Voyagers, three MRTTs and a single A330, which will be converted into a Voyager later. Another aircraft is currently being painted and should join the fleet in the coming weeks.