After a year-long delay, the Airbus Military A330MRTT has gained its “release to service” as a tanker in the UK, allowing the Royal Air Force (RAF) to start operational refueling. The service had been obliged to extend the service life of its aging VC10 and TriStar tankers in the meantime. The recent deployment of RAF Eurofighter Typhoons to Malaysia relied on Italian Air Force Boeing KC-767s to refuel the aircraft en route.
AirTanker, the commercial joint venture that is providing the aircraft under a private finance initiative, is due to receive a fifth A330MRTT this month, and a sixth by mid-year. The aircraft has been named Voyager in the UK. The company says that it remains on schedule to deliver the core capability of nine tanker aircraft by the middle of next year. The first Voyager entered service in April last year, but only as a troop and cargo transport. Since then, AirTanker has flown about 3,000 hours and 800 sectors.
After problems emerged during trial air refueling hook-ups with RAF Tornado combat jets in 2011-12, Airbus Military agreed to replace the tanker’s new high-speed variable drag drogues (HSVDDs), designed by Cobham and deploying from the two wing pods, with older Sargeant Fletcher-designed drogues, as found on the Airbus A310 tankers flown by Canada and Germany. Airbus Military also made minor modifications to the latching mechanism to prevent fuel spillage and corrected hose oscillation with new software in the wing-pod capstan motor. The HSVDD is being retained on seven Voyagers that are being delivered with an additional centreline hose-and-drogue, for the refueling of larger aircraft such as the RAF’s C-130J Hercules airlifters.
An Airbus Military official noted that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) had not experienced any problems with the HSVDDs on its A330MRTTs. They are also the standard fit on aircraft being delivered to the Saudi and UAE air forces.
A UK Ministry of Defence spokesman acknowledged to AIN that the contractor completed “interim engineering solutions” to the perceived problems within six months. Nevertheless, it took the UK’s Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA) another nine months to clear the new tankers for service. The MAA was created to improve safety oversight of UK military aircraft, following a critical public inquiry into the loss of an RAF Nimrod over Afghanistan. But in private UK defense aerospace companies have been increasingly critical of what they regard as its overly painstaking approach to certification.