The Royal Australian Air Force has demonstrated the capability of its KC-30 tankers to successfully support the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters being introduced to the fleet as the fifth-generation fighter rapidly approaches initial operational capability.
Eagle-eyed residents have spotted high-flying Air Force KC-30A refueling and air combat training missions over Taree on the NSW mid-north coast, as the Air Force begins the transfer from the F/A-18 Hornets to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Commanding Officer of No. 33 Squadron Wing Commander Sarah Stalker said skies over the area were frequently used for training.
"Air-to-air refuelling is usually conducted at an altitude of 20,000 feet or more, so will often go unnoticed by the local community. We’ll often use a block of airspace that extends from Williamtown to Coffs Harbour, which allows aircraft from Williamtown and Amberley to ‘meet in the middle’ when training," WGCDR Stalker said.
The KC-30A MRTT is fitted with two forms of air-to-air refuelling systems: an advanced refuelling boom system mounted on the tail of the aircraft and a pair of all-electric refuelling pods under each wing.
These systems are controlled by an air refuelling operator in the cockpit, who can view refuelling on 2D and 3D screens. The KC-30A can carry a fuel load of more than 100 tonnes and transfer part of that load to compatible aircraft, including:
- F/A-18A/B Hornets;
- F-35A Joint Strike Fighters;
- F/A-18F Super Hornets;
- E/A-18G Growlers;
- E-7A Wedgetails;
- C-17A Globemaster III; and
- Other KC-30As.
The KC-30A MRTT can remain 1,800 kilometres from its home base with 50 tonnes of fuel available to offload for up to four hours. In its transport role, the KC-30A is capable of carrying 270 passengers. It comes with under-floor cargo compartments that can accommodate 34,000 kilograms of military and civilian cargo pallets and containers.
WGCDR Stalker explained, "We can carry more than 100 tonnes of fuel and have two methods of offloading that fuel to another aircraft. The receiver aircraft will need to maintain a precise formation with the tanker whilst they fly together at 600 kilometres per hour.
"The receiver aircraft will either ‘plug in’ to a hose-and-drogue being trailed out by the tanker, or be ‘plugged’ by the refuelling boom on the tanker, depending on the refuelling system of the receiving aircraft."
While the KC-30A’s interior is almost exactly like a normal airliner, the rest of the aircraft has been modified with systems to perform the air-to-air refuelling. The KC-30A’s boom can offload fuel at a rate of 4,500 litres a minute and its hose-and-drogues can offload fuel at 1,600 litres a minute.
An air refuelling operator uses a console in the cockpit and 3D monitors to direct the refuelling process behind the aircraft.
Regular training and precise skill from the tanker crew and receiver pilot is necessary for safe air-to-air refuelling, however, this training activity presents very little risk to the wider public.
"Air-to-air refuelling isn’t just limited to our fighters – we can use it to keep surveillance aircraft in the air for longer, and we’ve even refuelled other transport aircraft. In 2017, we refuelled a RAAF C-17A Globemaster on a non-stop mission from Tasmania to air-drop supplies in Antarctica – a round-trip of 7,000 kilometres," WGCDR Stalker added.
The current round of air-to-air refuelling training is expected to continue high above the mid north coast of NSW until June 25.
For the RAAF, the F-35A's combination of full-spectrum low-observable stealth coatings and materials, advanced radar-dispersing shaping, network-centric sensor and communications suites – combined with a lethal strike capability – means the aircraft will be the ultimate force multiplying, air-combat platform.
The F-35A – the variant chosen by the RAAF – will have with a projected life of 30 years in service.
Ten nations are currently flying F-35s, including the US, UK, Italy, Norway, Israel and Japan. The first of Australia’s F-35A aircraft are now based on home soil after a period of training and development at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, plus an epic Pacific Ocean crossing in December 2018.
More than 340 F-35s are operating today with partner nations, more than 700 pilots and 6,500 maintainers have been trained, and the F-35 fleet has surpassed more than 170,000 cumulative flight hours.
Over the coming years, Australia will purchase 72 of the advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft as part of the $17 billion AIR 6000 Phase 2A/B program – which is aimed at replacing the ageing F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets that have been in service with the RAAF since 1985.