The AirTanker consortium comprises Babcock, Cobham, EADS, Rolls-Royce and Thales. These partners have all contributed equipment and/or buildings to the project. AirTanker Ltd. holds the contract with the UK MoD; service delivery is via another registered company, AirTanker Services Ltd.
AirTanker signed the 27-year contract for what was then called the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) in March 2008. The company declared, “This program will combine best practice from civil aviation with RAF operational expertise and military ethos to create a most efficient and effective operational solution for the RAF. It is an exciting and ambitious program that will take collaboration between the MoD and industry to a new level.”
AirTanker built an impressive two-bay hangar and operations building at the RAF’s airlift hub, Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Nearby, a purpose-built training center houses a full-motion simulator, two part-task trainers for the flight deck and the refueling operator’s station, all provided by Thales. There are also classrooms for computer-based training, and a simulator session replay room. These facilities “are the envy of the station,” according to Darren Cox, AirTanker’s technical training manager. They are fully certified by both the CAA and the MAA. “We’ve been under the microscope from both authorities,” Cox told AIN.
Training of aircrew and maintenance engineers began in 2011. The AirTanker operation is being manned by a unique combination of civilians employed by the company, regular RAF personnel and “sponsored reservists.” The civilians have been recruited mostly from airlines or Part 145-qualified maintenance companies.
AirTanker has not found it difficult to recruit reservist aircrew from the airlines. They relish the challenge of nonroutine operations, Cox said. Most of them come with A320 or A330 experience. They take an aptitude test in the simulator, then the RAF takes them on a nine-month military and officer training course before they return as Flight Lieutenants for their A330MRTT conversion. The RAF intake has been a mix of experienced pilots from the C-130, VC-10 and TriStar fleets, and newly trained pilots.
Airtanker has employed some licensed engineers, but others are being recruited as sponsored reservists. Together with the serving RAF engineers who are posted to AirTanker, they take a 12-month theory course followed by another 12 months on-the-job training with British airlines that fly A330s. At the end of the course, they all get a full CAA Part-66 aircraft maintenance license. “We overtrain our engineers. They have to be self-sufficient and capable of dealing with everything that a civilian aircraft engineer does, such as maintain ground-upport equipment and perform de-icing,” Cox explained. “To be back in the classroom after 11 years in the RAF was a culture shock, but the experience we gained was exceptional,” said one NCO.
The engineering experience that AirTanker is building will enable the company to start doing C-checks on the Voyager fleet next year. “Since we are Part 145-approved, we could theoretically become an MRO for A330s,” AirTanker fleet engineering director Paul Kimberley told AIN. Like Cox, he described the dual-track course that the company has pursued toward civilian (EASA/CAA) and military (MAA) certification.
Cabin crew are, similarly, a mix of serving military personnel and sponsored reservists. Military passengers have been pleasantly surprised by the Voyager’s comfort levels. The seats are in a 2-4-2 configuration and have a 34-inch pitch and there is in-flight video on overhead screens.