USAF Exploring Solo Pilot Operations For KC-46

Credit: USAF

The U.S. Air Force is exploring having just one pilot fly its newest tanker in a move Air Mobility Command (AMC) says could be needed to operate with more agility in war.

AMC is reviewing the waiver request to have the pilot fly solo but has not yet approved the step as it considers the safety issues at stake.

“Mobility aircraft typically fly with a pilot, co-pilot, and based on aircraft type, a loadmaster and/or a boom operator,” AMC spokesman Col. Damien Pickart says in a statement. “The command is currently reassessing minimum flight crew requirements as we explore and validate new tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) oriented toward a dynamic, future flight.”

The waiver request could shape the new TTPs for how the KC-46 will operate. The tanker is still at least two years away from its initial operational capability with the Air Force as the service and Boeing rework its remote vision system and fix an issue with the tanker’s refueling boom that prevents it from refueling all U.S. Air Force aircraft. The service has cleared it for some operations under an Interim Capability Release plan—allowing it to be tasked for about 97% of U.S. Transportation Command requirements.

In recent years, the Air Force has been developing a concept it calls Agile Combat Employment that seeks to have combat units and aircraft able to move to smaller, more austere operating locations with the minimal number of personnel to quickly stand up operations. Having one pilot responsible for a tanker could help with this process, though it would limit the length of time the tanker could fly and raise other safety issues.

“The AMC staff is currently reviewing this concept development and ensuring the authorities to execute this type of maneuver are at the [major command] level and can be executed within an adequate safety margin before approval will be provided,” Pickart says.

The modernized KC-46, based on Boeing’s 767 but with the cockpit displays from the 787, has extensive autopilot capability that allows the tanker to fly itself on refueling tracks as the aircraft passes fuel to a receiver. The service’s legacy KC-135, however, has had extensive issues with its autopilot system and the command has restricted its use.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.