Paris Air Show

Airbus Tanker Business Booming

 - June 17, 2013, 4:25 AM
An Australian KC-30A operates from its base at RAAF Amberley. The aircraft is cleared to refuel both “legacy” and Super Hornets using its wing pods, but the boom has not yet been approved for use.

Airbus Military believes that teething problems with its multi-role tanker/transport (MRTT) business are now behind it, and that it’s set to grow over the coming year. With the A330 MRTT the company has the only new-generation tanker/transport flying, and hopes to secure new customers while continuing to deliver aircraft to its existing four operators, who will have received 17 aircraft by the end of 2013.

Rafael Tentor, senior v-p programs, noted, “We are not just producing a tanker. It can transport up to 300 soldiers, it can do medevac, and it can be a VIP transport. It brings airliner dispatch reliability to the military world.” Those attributes have already proved popular in the first months of service with Australia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UK.

Now, Airbus Military is looking to conclude two more deals. France is widely expected to sign a contract for 12 aircraft before the end of the year, having announced in the recent defense white paper that it is to proceed with this program, albeit reduced from the initial 14-aircraft requirement. The aircraft will be three-point tankers with a Combi cabin. That will require Airbus to install a cargo door in the fuselage side so that large freight items can be carried in addition to passengers.

India has already selected the A330 MRTT and the contract is in the process of being finalized. Airbus suggests that the signature could come as early as September, or at least before the end of the year. Six aircraft are in the initial order, although it is anticipated that the number will grow. Indian aircraft will not have a boom fitted.

Airbus has a number of other opportunities in its sights. In late May the company presented its best and final offer to Singapore, which is looking for six aircraft to replace its aging Boeing KC-135 tankers. Earlier this year Airbus Military demonstrated the A330 MRTT in Algeria, including compatibility trials with the nation’s Sukhoi Su-30 fighters, while other prospects include Canada, Chile, Egypt, Peru, South Africa and South Korea. A follow-on order from Australia is also a possibility. Finally, Airbus Military remains sanguine about its chances should the U.S. launch its KC-Y program for a larger tanker/transport to partner the Boeing KC-46.

While Airbus Military salesmen travel the globe, the company is delivering aircraft from its Getafe conversion facility outside Madrid, and all four initial customers are operating the aircraft in both transport and tanker roles. Australia has taken delivery of all its five KC-30A aircraft, and in February achieved initial operating capability in the tanker role using the wing pods, with full operating capability expected next year.

The first Australian aircraft remains at Getafe to conduct trials associated with the boom enhancement program, which has caused delays to the operational release of the boom system. A third boom upgrade is now being implemented with the fine-tuning of dual flight control laws for heavy receivers. This upgrade comes after a second boom separation incident last year. The event was attributable to a conflict between a customer-specified third backup hoist and the primary/secondary hoist system. Airbus Military reports that the issue has been fixed, and just before the show a second Australian aircraft flew to Getafe to allow trials to be undertaken of the latest upgrade.

At the end of May the fifth Voyager FSTA aircraft was delivered to the UK, where it will be joined by a sixth shortly after the Paris show. Two more are due for delivery early next year. The UK’s aircraft include the first to fly on the civilian register, undertaking its first passenger-carrying flight to Akrotiri in Cyprus in January. Two military-registered two-point tankers have been operational since entry into service was achieved last April, and have flown more than 470 sectors in 1,700 hours of flight time. In mid-May the release to service was signed for the aircraft to refuel Tornado receivers, and a similar release is expected for the Typhoon in late July.

Earlier problems of latching and drogue rotation have been solved, with flight testing of the fixes completed last November. The RAF is currently the only operator to use the Sargent Fletcher drogue but Airbus reports that other operators, including the UAE, are examining a switch to this equipment from the Cobham drogues currently employed.

Meanwhile, the first three-point Voyager KC3 for the RAF was delivered at the end of April. This version is being looked at as a possible retrofit candidate for a VIP interior. This option is also being studied by Australia.

Saudi Arabia has taken delivery of its batch of three A330 MRTTs, although one is held back at Getafe for training. This is expected to fly to Saudi Arabia this month to begin clearance tests for the Boeing F-15 receiver. Tornados and Typhoons are already cleared to refuel from the A330, which has been operational since January. The second batch of three Saudi aircraft will be delivered in 2015.

In the United Arab Emirates the aircraft has been conducting initial operational training with Mirage 2000-9 receivers since its delivery in February. A second aircraft was delivered last month, and this is to conduct training with boom receptacle-equipped large receivers. The third and final aircraft is due for delivery in July. UAE aircraft are supported by local company AMMROC.