RAF Retires TriStar Tankers As Voyager Fleet Grows

 - March 26, 2014, 11:06 AM
An RAF TriStar KC.1 refuels two Typhoon interceptors over the North Sea on its last operational mission (Photo: Robert Archer). Inset: One of the replacement Voyagers provided by AirTanker, on night alert at RAF Brize Norton (Photo: MoD Crown Copyright).

The UK Royal Air Force retired its four remaining Lockheed TriStar tanker/transports on schedule this week, as the replacement fleet of Airbus A330-MRTTs grows. Seven of these aircraft—known as the Voyager in RAF service and provided under contract by AirTanker—have now been delivered, with two more slated for handover by the end of June. The Voyagers have also replaced the RAF’s venerable VC10 tanker/transports, which were retired last September.

AIN joined the last operational TriStar mission on March 24. The formation of two aircraft left their base at RAF Brize Norton to conduct a final refueling sortie over the North Sea with Tornado and Typhoon combat jets. One of the pair then flew over three airfields associated with the TriStar in RAF service: Cambridge (where Marshall Aerospace did overhauls and supported the nine-strong fleet); Hurn (main home of Cobham, whose Flight Refueling predecessor provided the aircraft’s hose-and-drogue pods); and Wimborne (Flight Refueling’s original site).

We flew in KC.1 ZD950, which was in a typical mixed passenger/cargo main-deck configuration, with eight pallet positions and 133 seats. Four of the nine TriStar 500s that the RAF acquired from British Airways and Pan Am in 1984 were so configured; another two were K.1s with no main-deck large cargo door although still capable of carrying main-deck baggage and cargo in special containers designed by Marshall; a further three were C.2 transports without tanking capability. The KC.1s and K.1s carried all their fuel in tanks located in the lower deck.

The TriStars were all operated by No 216 Squadron, which once boasted the largest headcount of any RAF Squadron—500 people. “We’ve been proud of the TriStar over the past 30 years, during which time it has been involved in nearly every British military operation…[with] an impeccable safety record,” said Wg Cdr Peter Morgan, the squadron commander. The big trijet was Lockheed’s last airliner, an engineering success but a commercial disappointment that bankrupted the sole provider of its engines, Rolls-Royce with the RB.211, which had to be rescued by the British government. A total of 250 TriStars were built between 1970 and 1983. Only a handful remain flying. The large final assembly hall that was built for the TriStar, still a landmark at Palmdale Airport in southern California, is now the home of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.

AirTanker has assumed responsibility for refueling support to RAF Typhoons on quick reaction alert (QRA) in both the UK and the Falkland Islands, to where one Voyager was detached at the end of February. An AirTanker spokesman told AIN that clearances to refuel the RAF’s large aircraft such as the C-130J Hercules and the E-3D Sentry, and to provide aeromedical evacuation capability, are imminent. The ninth and last aircraft in the “core” fleet will be delivered with an enhanced defensive aids subsystem (DASS) that will be retrofitted to aircraft delivered earlier. Negotiations continue on how the “swing” fleet of five more aircraft could be employed when not required in RAF service. The first of these is scheduled for delivery in the first quarter of next year.

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