Delays Still Cloud Airbus A330 Tanker Program

 - November 23, 2012, 7:40 AM
The first A330MRTT Voyager for the UK Royal Air Force lands at its homebase, Brize Norton. It is being used only for transport flights, with wing pods removed, pending the start of air refueling training. (Photo: AirTanker)

Technical issues continue to affect the Airbus Military A330MRTT Multi-Role Tanker-Transport program, delaying full operational capability with four air forces that are due to receive a total of 28 aircraft ordered to date. A second refueling boom separated from an A330MRTT during a test flight in Spain in September. But the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is likely to clear the new tanker for routine hose-and-drogue refueling of F/A-18A/B Hornet fighters next month. And in the UK, the company that is providing 14 A330MRTTs to the Royal Air Force (RAF) told AIN that it would start air-to-air refueling training in the first quarter of next year, despite earlier delays and flight-test problems.

Airbus Military said that the latest boom failure occurred during “an artificially induced test condition which could not occur in normal operation” and involved a back-up hoist system that has been ordered by only one customer. That customer is the UAE Air Force, which was due to receive the first of its three aircraft in September. The first boom detachment was suffered by one of the RAAF’s five aircraft during a test flight in Spain in January 2011. The RAAF subsequently called for hardware and software modifications, and won’t even begin operational testing of the boom until next year, about three years behind schedule. The similarly configured aircraft for Saudi Arabia (the fourth customer) and the UAE were supposed to be qualified in September and December last year, respectively.

The RAF aircraft do not have a boom, but in flight trials of the wingpod hose-and-drogue system refueling the service’s Tornado combat jets last year, there were problems of hose stability and fuel leakage. As a result, the new drogue that Cobham designed to provide a higher refueling speed range is being supplemented by an older design, already in service. Refueling flight trials with the Tornado are now completed, AirTanker Ltd. told AIN. In 2008, the UK Ministry of Defence placed a $16.8 billion contract with Airtanker to provide the aircraft and all associated services under a private finance initiative that proved politically controversial. AirTanker is a joint venture between EADS (40 percent); Rolls-Royce (20 percent); and Babcock, Cobham and Thales, each with 13.3 percent.

To meet the specified in-service date of May 2014, AirTanker must deliver nine aircraft and crews by then. While the first Voyager (as the A330MRTT is known in the RAF) continues flight trials, the second was delivered last April, six months late, and has been flying only as a long-haul troop and cargo carrier. The third and fourth aircraft are under conversion by Cobham at Bournemouth, and both are due to be delivered to the RAF within the next six months. But a plan for Cobham to convert the remaining 10 aircraft was abandoned last June, in favor of doing them all at the Airbus Military headquarters in Getafe, Spain. Meanwhile, the RAF is to receive its second Voyager late next month, when a ‘green,’ civilian-registered aircraft arrives direct from the A330 production line at Toulouse. This will also be used in the transport role, flown by AirTanker crews, and replacing some chartered capacity.

AirTanker said that Voyager deliveries “remain on schedule,” so as to achieve “our full air-to-air refueling in-service date of mid-2014.” Simulator and classroom training of RAF crews began last month. However, AIN understands that the RAF is making plans to keep the last of its aging VC-10 and Tristar tankers in service beyond their currently planned retirement dates of March 2013 and May 2014, respectively. A senior RAF officer told AIN that “we’ll settle for nothing less than 100 percent functionality...the crunch date is receiving Voyager aircraft with the DAS [defensive aids system], to conduct like-for-like operations.” Airtanker declined to comment on progress with the DAS. Last year, it received a supplementary contract to study “enhanced protection measures” that are believed to include inerting of the fuel tanks and armoring of the cockpit.