Trials and tribulations for new GCC tankers
The adoption of the A330 MRTT by the two largest air forces in the GCC marks the beginning of a new era for the region's air arms, conferring a hitherto unknown degree of independence from tankers operated by coalition partners. Jon Lake reports.
Though it was not selected to meet the US Air Force’s KC-X requirement, the superior payload/range and operating characteristics of the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) has won most of the other competitions it has been involved in.
The type has been selected by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the UAE Air Force and Air Defence (UAE AF&AD) and the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF).
The United Arab Emirates announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Airbus to purchase three A330 MRTTs in 2007 and a formal contract signature was announced in February 2008. Saudi Arabia finalised its agreement to purchase three A330 MRTTs on January 3 2008, and announced an order for three additional aircraft in July 2009.
Like the RAAF’s KC-30s and the UAE’s A330-243 MRTTs, the Saudi aircraft have a universal aerial refuelling receptacle slipway installation (UARRSI) above the fuselage to allow it to refuel in flight from another boom-equipped tanker. The Saudi aircraft are powered by General Electric CF6-80 engines and are fitted out in a two-class layout with 30 first-class and 236 ‘economy’ seats. The UAE aircraft have Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines and 16 first class and 240 ‘economy’ seats.
The first of the UAE’s three aircraft was deployed to Al Dhafra in the UAE in March-April 2012 for operational evaluation, using Mirage 2000 and F-16E/F receivers to prove the under-wing pods and the centreline boom respectively.
Dual and single-seat Mirages were flown during the trials, the two-seater with under-wing tanks and missiles and the single-seater with missiles and a centreline tank. The A330 MRTT was then flown back to Getafe, where it was used for tests and trials, and for the training of initial UAE AF&AD aircrews.
The second UAE aircraft was due to be delivered in September 2012 but after arriving at Getafe (from Toulouse) on August 16, it lost its refuelling boom during a routine flight test on September 10 while flying over Extremadura. The boom is designed to break away in certain circumstances to avoid damage to the fuselage. This was the second time an Airbus A330 MRTT had lost its boom in flight, the first incident occurred in January 2011 while an Australian A330 tanker was refuelling a Portuguese Air Force F-16 over water.
The aircraft will now have to undergo repairs and the installation of a replacement boom, which will delay its delivery.
The third and final UAE aircraft, due for delivery in December 2012, may now be the first to enter service.
The first of six A330-202 MRTTs for the RSAF’s 24 Squadron recently undertook trials with a pair of 66 Squadron Tornado IDS and a pair of Third Squadron Typhoons, which arrived at the Airbus Military facility at Getafe on June 21 (supported by a pair of C-130H Hercules) for refuelling trials that were conducted from June 25-29. This marked the first return of Saudi Typhoons to Europe following their deliveries.
Crews had started flight training on the first RSAF A330 MRTT with Airbus Military instructors in Spain during October 2011, qualifying in the air transport and air-to-air refuelling roles using the under-wing Cobham 905E pods and centreline boom. This aircraft was formally handed over to the RSAF in mid-November 2011, but remained at Getafe for training, testing and trials.
The second aircraft was held at Getafe waiting delivery (scheduled for July 2012), where Saudi crews were undergoing conversion training.
Training of the second Saudi crew began at about the same time that the second aircraft was delivered.
The third RSAF A330 MRTT is undergoing conversion by Iberia at Madrid-Barajas and is scheduled for delivery in December 2012. The remainder are to be delivered in 2014-2016. 24 Squadron forms part of the RSAF’s 6 Wing at Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj, which is home to the RSAF’s existing tanker fleet. This presently comprises seven Boeing 707-based KE-3As, which serve with the co-located 23 Squadron and seven Lockheed Martin KC-130Hs, which serve with 32 Squadron.
All this leads to the intriguing possibility of the RSAF and the UAE AF&AD offering their own tankers in support of coalition operations.