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World’s First Automatic Large Aircraft Air-to-Air Refuelling

RAAF KC-30A Receives from A310 Tanker

Following an earlier ‘first’ demonstrating Automatic Air-to-Air Refuelling (A3R), Airbus Defence & Space has achieved another world premier – performing the same operation with a large receiver aircraft.

In a joint operation with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which is collaborating with Airbus in development of this pioneering technology, Airbus’ A310 company development tanker performed seven automatic contacts with a RAAF KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), also made by Airbus. In the 20 June flight off the southern Spanish coast, the A310 tanker performed the scheduled seven contacts over a two-hour test period. 

The system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce refuelling boom operator workload, improve safety, and optimise the rate of refuelling in operational conditions to maximise aerial superiority. Airbus has begun work towards introducing the system on the current production A330 MRTT.

During initial approach of the receiver, boom control is performed by the tanker’s Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) as usual. Innovative passive techniques, such as image processing, are then used to determine the receiver’s refuelling receptacle position and, when the automated system is activated, a fully automated flight control system ‘flies’ and maintains the boom in alignment with the receiver’s receptacle. The telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled in a number of ways including: manually by the ARO; a relative distance-keeping mode; or fully automatic mode to perform the contact.

“It was extremely impressive to see how accurately the A3R system tracks the receiver. It can be very useful to be able to refuel another tanker or transport, for example to extend its deployment range or to avoid taking fuel back to base, but it is also a challenging operation and this system has the potential to reduce workload and the risk involved,” commented Airbus Test ARO (or ‘boomer’), David Piatti.

It’s very encouraging to come to Spain and see the progress that’s been made with A3R, and be able to witness it first-hand refuelling our KC-30A,” added Executive Officer for the RAAF’s Aircraft Research & Development Unit, Sq.-Ldr. Lawry Benier.Refuelling large receivers is a role [the] RAAF has conducted extensively on operations and exercises, allowing us to extend the reach and responsiveness of our air mobility fleet, as well as keep surveillance aircraft in the air for longer.”


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