A330 MRTT brings a boom to Airbus biz

 - November 12, 2009, 6:43 PM

According to Airbus Military officials, the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) has won all the recent competitions for a large aerial tanker because of its superior airframe, coupled to a unique, high-technology refueling system. “We’re very proud of our in-house boom,” said Peter Scoffham, vice president for defense capability marketing. “EADS took a strategic decision to develop it,” added Miguel Morell, head of military derivative programs.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have ordered A330 MRTTs–six and three, respectively–that will use this boom for refueling the U.S.-designed aircraft operated by their air forces. The aircraft will also have a pod under each wing, newly designed by Cobham, for the hose-and-drogue refueling of their European fighters. Five aircraft in the same configuration are to be delivered to launch customer Australia starting next year, while the UK is to receive 14 aircraft also equipped with the wing pods, but with a centerline hose-and-drum unit instead of the boom.

Development of the boom started at the EADS-CASA facility at Getafe near Madrid in September 2001. Starting with a “clean sheet,” designers opted for an all-electrical, fly-by-wire system. Among other advantages, this provides automatic alleviation of aerodynamic loads via the ailerons on the boom, and for an automatic disconnect if the boom is operated outside the design envelope.

An advanced, high-definition video system was developed, so that the boom operator has an unequaled view of the refueling operator, who is sitting in the cockpit. A combination of 3-D and panoramic cameras are housed at the rear of the fuselage and their product is displayed on the operator’s console on four screens, including a large one that provides stereo imagery of the boom and the fuel-receiving aircraft. A second operator console is provided alongside to be used by a refueling instructor or a mission coordinator.

The company built an iron-bird test rig at Getafe in 2005, which included a mockup of the F-16 refueling receptacle. An adjacent systems integration laboratory proved the boom control and video systems. The whole system took to the air first on an EADS-owned A310 demonstrator. A variety of hookups were demonstrated, including Portuguese F-16s, Spanish F-18s, and NATO and French E-3 AWACS. In 2007, Airbus delivered two A310 MRTTs to Canada and four to Germany.

Conversion of the first A330 began in 2006 when the first aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was delivered to Getafe from the production line at Toulouse. After the structural reinforcements were completed in one of three large new hangars built at the Spanish airfield, this aircraft was shown at the Paris Air Show in 2007. After that, Airbus conducted a first phase of flight testing comprising 213 hours on 67 flights.

The tests evaluated the changes in the A330 aerodynamic characteristics caused by the boom, the pods and their extended hoses, and by the various additional fairings for the cameras, defensive aids and military communications.

Since early 2009, Airbus Military has logged a further 150 hours on 57 flights on this first A330 MRTT during the Phase 2 flight tests. Dry hookups have been made with various aircraft, and the military avionics are being activated.

The Phase 2 tests have included deployment of the boom and hoses, and dry contacts for the A330 MRTT to receive fuel from the A310 MRTT demonstrator and from a KC-135. And, on October 21, refueling was executed for the first time through the refueling boom system with more than 1.5 metric tons of fuel being transferred during 13 contacts with a Portuguese air force F-16. Certification of the modified A330 airframe to the civilian standards of the European Aviation Safety Agency is imminent. Morell estimated that 50 to 70 more flights would be required before the aircraft can be delivered to the RAAF in the middle of next year.

A second A330 was converted by Qantas Aviation Services in Brisbane and flew, on October 28, to the Airbus Military facility in Getafe, where it has joined the first for a final series of flight tests. Two days later, on October 30, it was joined by a third A330, which will undergo further modifications before joining the certification and qualification flight program. The fourth and fifth aircraft are to follow next year.
The first two aircraft for the UK Royal Air Force are now being converted at Getafe. The remaining 12 are to be converted at Cobham’s Bournemouth facility in southern England.

This model of doing the first conversions at Getafe and the remainder at an MRO in the customers’ country can be applied to other customers. The first aircraft for Saudi Arabia is to arrive at Getafe for conversion this month, with the remainder to be completed at a yet-to-be-announced location in the kingdom. The UAE has opted to have all three aircraft converted at Getafe, for reasons of speed. But Scoffham revealed that the UAE may come back for more tankers and they might be converted by Mubadala.

Other near-term prospects for the A330 MRTT include France, which has mulled acquiring its next tanker using a private finance model. The UK opted to do this, but took six years to negotiate and finance the plan. The French are therefore having second thoughts, but whatever procurement method they finally adopt, the French “will definitely hold a competition,” according to Morell.

Scoffham said the worldwide market for new tankers is 40 to 50 more, not including the U.S. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get all of them,” said Morell. Airbus Military is in discussion with Brazil, Korea, Singapore and other countries for orders, he said. Australia could reorder, he noted, but it might opt for a main-deck cargo door, which none of the existing A330 MRTT customers has specified. But the large cargo door is being developed and certified for the commercial A330-200 Freighter, which is due to fly by the end of this month.

The U.S. Air Force did specify a main-deck cargo door and the KC-X requirement remains the big prize for EADS-Airbus, of course, albeit via prime U.S. contractor Northrop Grumman. It remains to be seen how the Pentagon’s new competition will evolve.

But Airbus Military sees no need to change its basic marketing philosophy. The A330 “was born to be a tanker,” according to Morell, because the outer wing pylons and support structure for the refueling pods were already there–they were designed for the A330’s four-engine sister ship, the A340–and because no additional fuel tanks need be installed. The A330 has a fuel capacity of 36,700 gallons, all carried in the wings. That is 50 percent more capacity than that of the KC-767s sold by Boeing to Italy, which have additional belly tanks, said Scoffham. And with development of the A330 MRTT approaching completion, it is way ahead of any possible 777 tanker that Boeing might propose for KC-X, he added.