Top 10ish Air Refuelling Aircraft
Fire up one of the virtual radars, set your map to cover a swathe of airspace that ranges from UK to Ukraine. Click the icon to lose the civil rubbish and you will see tankers, lots of tankers: KC-135s, A330 MRTTs, Voyagers, Extenders, even a KC-46 if it’s feeling like functioning. While slightly higher up most aviation enthusiasts’ hierarchy than helicopters, tankers are pretty low on the must-see list. They’re just airliners in khaki, aren’t they? I disagree. While air refuelling aircraft lack the attention-seeking psychopathy of the fast jets, in the modern battlespace, those same fast jets don’t get to anything without them. This is best summed up by the creaking old cliche (that fails to rhyme in most English accents): ‘Nobody kicks ass, without tanker gas.’
Image credits: Terry Panopalis/Chris Gibson or https://www.55assoc.com/tanker-stories/ or as described
I have little interest in the fast jets beloved of everyone else, but find the ‘plus support’ side of military operations; AEW, ELINT, reconnaissance, refuelling and transport – even helicopters, endlessly, seductively fascinating.
When Hush-Kit asked me to draw up a Top Ten of tankers, I had one proviso: there had to be twelve on the list. There may or may not have been 99 tankers, but in at joint number 99 are the RAF’s Voyager (the Qatar World Cup of tankers) and the KC-46A Pegasus (the Liz Truss of tankers). I’ll get the rants out of the way first as the internet is pretty shit on the offshore oil rig I’m writing this from.
When the replacement for the RAF’s TriStar and VC10 fleet was being discussed in the late 1990s, Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) were all the rage in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Put very simply, a private company would foot the bill for the aircraft and the government would ‘rent’ the aircraft for operations. The PFI deal that led to the Voyager was severely criticised, with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge MP, revealing that the MoD had no idea as to whether it represented value for money. Well, it didn’t, and the word is that an entire fleet of tankers based on the Boeing 767 could have been acquired for the cost of one Voyager. Hyperbole perhaps, but another source states the same machines could have been bought for 30% of what the MoD paid for its Voyagers. Of course, it’s all the politicians’ fault, so as Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again. Freddie Laker must have been raging.
To add insult to injury, the Voyagers lacked defensive countermeasures. It’s not like they would be going to dangerous places, so why bother? More critically, they also lack a boom for refuelling US (and US-provided) aircraft (we won’t need that, we use probe and drogue). It was a shame then, that the RAF would then start operating types that have boom receptacles rather than probes. Extremely important aircraft too, three vital military aircraft: the E-7, P-8 Poseidon MRA1 and the RC-135 AirSeeker (presumably so-called because it deplores a vacuum, hence the dusty carpets) R1.
Open up your virtual radar and most mornings and you’ll see an RAF AirSeeker R1, bound for the Black- or Baltic Seas, being refuelled close to Lincolnshire by a USAF KC-135. The Voyager, superb in so many ways, would have made number three or even two in this list if it had a boom and was cheaper, but it hasn’t, it isn’t and it’s at joint 99th. Margaret Hodge will approve.
At joint 99th place is the KC-46A Pegasus. The USAF could have put a refuelling kit on the trusty 767 and ended up with the rather good KC-767s used by the Italian and Japanese air forces. Instead, they fiddled with everything and added every conceivable bell-and-whistle and ended up making a pig’s ear of the whole thing.
In the initial contest for a much-need new US tanker, the KC-46 was defeated by the superior EADS/Northrop KC-45. This was based on the Airbus A330, and was known as the MRTT. Boeing were damned if they would let Airbus get a foothold in USAF, and if they couldn’t win in an evaluation they could at least win in the courtroom. So despite many technical issues including fuel leaks (only allowed on the SR-71), comical cost over-runs and a potential 737MAX-like problem (as the Pegasus used a similar MCAS system) it was won an order. There was always a feeling that the KC-45 was a better machine and when faced with a choice, most overseas customers opted for the A330 MRTT.
The KC-46 be fine one bright day, once the problems have been trampled to death by Boeing. I have seen a few over my house, which seems to be the tanker crossroads of the UK (though they may have been Italian Air Force). Enough of me, let’s get to the list.
10. Avro Vulcan ‘The Juicy Naan Triangle’
‘Oh, that was a lash-up for the Falklands!’ says the man at the airshow with dead eyes, a massive zoom lens and a suspect tattoo. Yes and no. In July 1953 Alan Cobham, father of air-to-air refuelling, wrote to Air Chief Marshal Sir William Dickson, Chief of the Air Staff, with a proposal to fit the V-bombers (at this point only Valiant B1 and Vulcan B1) with a refuelling capability. This involved fitting two auxiliary tanks and a Hose Drum Unit (HDU) in the bomb bay. The Valiant proposal was taken up a few years later as the B(K)1, but the Vulcan proposal received a polite ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ response.
Fast forward 29 years to May 1982 when just about every tanker in the RAF was either at Wideawake Field in Ascension or supporting aircraft moving to and from it. The RAF still had commitments to air defence in the Greenland/Iceland/UK (GIUK) Gap, so to free up tankers for ‘down south’ the USAF fitted boom/drogue adapters (BDA) to some of its UK-based KC-135s and supported the RAF’s air defence Phantoms and Lightnings.
To address this lack of tankers (which the Air Staff had been aware of since the mid-70s, leading to the VC10K force) the RAF looked around for something to use as a tanker in the immediate term. Having a few Vulcans on their way out of service, the Air Staff blew the dust off Cobham’s brochure and approached BAe (née Avro) at Woodford.
Woodford advised that the bomb bay installation would not provide enough separation for the receiver, but if the HDU was moved to the ECM bay in the Vulcan B2’s rather capacious tailcone, it would be just fine. In next to no time (admirably quick actually) a fairing to house the drogue was designed, built, fitted and the HDU installed in a Vulcan. Some say it was a classic example of bodging but I’m not so sure. It worked and the Vulcan B2(K), complete with three auxiliary tanks in the bomb bay, was delivered to the RAF. Six were converted and operated in support of air defence operations and attracted much more attention than their Valiant predecessors. The Vulcan was the last of the bomber-to-tanker conversions carried out for a cash-strapped RAF, a lineage dating back to the Handley Page Harrow in the 1930s. Not dedicated, but they meant well.
9. Buddy-Buddy ‘Holly Holly’
Back in 1983, I was in New Zealand on a university project. Between trips into the boonies to hit rocks with a hammer and pan for gold, I had blagged a visit to the RNZAF base at Ohakea. This was home to Skyhawks and Strikemasters, which the Kiwis affectionately referred to as ‘Blunties’, a superb name. Aside from a great lunch and the full tour, my very hospitable hosts presented me with loads of freebies; stickers, patches etc. Over the years and many house moves, most have been lost, apart from one of the ‘etc’. It is a photograph of two Skyhawks.
Ok, so I said I wasn’t a fan of the flashy loud jetset but add a buddy refuelling pod and you have my attention. Just about every fighter and strike aircraft has had a ‘buddy pack’ and extra fuel tanks added at some point, even the beatified TSR.2 was to be a tanker. Naval aircraft were an obvious choice for this, especially for carrier operations. The US Navy and Fleet Air Arm were great fans of the buddy pack, essentially an HDU in a drop tank, produced by companies such as Douglas, Sargent Fletcher and of course, Flight Refuelling Ltd, who have bought up everyone else and now trade as Cobham.
Buddy packs allow naval aircraft to be catapulted with maximum weapons load thanks to a reduced fuel weight, then refuelled by a buddy once in the air or on the way to or from the target. They also allow for some quite spectacular sights, such as four aircraft (A-3 Skywarrior, A-4 Skyhawk, de Havilland Sea Vixen and Supermarine Scimitar) daisy-chained by their buddy packs.
This brings me back to that photograph of the Skyhawks. Perhaps the most spectacular example of what can be done with a buddy pack was performed by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1982 when two Douglas TA-4Ks flew inverted. Over a volcano. In contact. Beat that!
8 – Tupolev Tu-16Z Badger
‘Badger?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why a Badger?’ Well, it’s different, so why not include it. It’s on the list as it is different and an example of a technological blind alley, an early attempt at transferring fuel that didn’t involve lowering jerrycans on a rope.
Both the USAF and RAF had tested similar line and grapple systems, but soon ditched them for probe and drogue or flying boom refuelling. I’ve never quite worked out the Tupolev refuelling system used by the Tu-16Z Badger: it involved trailing wires, shot lines and hoses and grappling hooks and running the hose from the bomb bay to the wing tip and frankly the explanation of how it works prompts the obvious response – ‘Anyone fancy a pint?’ so I won’t waste your time. I described it, just once, in a book on air-to-air refuelling aircraft and that was enough for me. If hose and drogue refuelling can be described as ‘a running fuck at a rolling doughnut’, I struggle to find a simile for the Tupolev system. I would not fancy doing it in the dark. That might explain all those medals on Russian Air Force officers’ chests.
Suffice to say it was only fitted to two types: the Tu-4 Bull (a reverse-engineered Boeing B-29 and one of the biggest engineering efforts in history) and the Badger. The receiver required special equipment on the wingtip and the whole system was complicated, even downright dangerous! Once the Bulls were scrapped the system was only operational on the Badger but not for long.
It had occurred to me that it was developed to avoid patent infringement, but soon put that daft notion out of my head as the Soviet Union wasn’t too bothered about the niceties of western patent law. But rather than admit it was rubbish, the Soviets charged ahead and put it into service. It could have been the Russian penchant for ballet that pushed the Tupolev system, as the process involved some intricate and precise movements, but once the hose was connected and fuel being transferred, the two Badgers did look rather graceful.
The Tupolev system didn’t last long as it was completely impractical in an operational setting and soon enough, the patents were being infringed. It couldn’t be used on the Bear and Bison bombers as their wings flexed too much so the Tupolev system was stripped out of the Badgers and a HDU was installed in the bomb bay of the Tu-16Z to produce the Tu-16N. Soon Bears and Blinders were sporting refuelling probes and taking on fuel from Badgers. Awkward, but interesting, the Badger should be in the Top Ten.
7. Ilyushin Il-78 ‘Midas‘ – ‘Red Gold’
Like the British, the Soviets converted bombers to the tanker role, and one of these, the Myasishchev Mya-4 Bison-A, was fitted out as a single-point tanker. As the US and UK discovered, single-point tankers were fine for supporting strategic bomber operations, but tactical support was a different kettle of fish. The RAF had fitted HDUs and pods to their tankers, but the USAF was wedded to the flying boom. The Soviets on the other hand could watch what was going on in the west and learn from the Americans and British.
As Flexible Response became the West’s policy for war fighting, the Soviet Union saw a need to support its Frontal Aviation during possible operations in western Europe. While the US air forces learned how to integrate tankers and strike aircraft in large strike packages during the war in Indo-China, the Soviets watched and learned. What they needed was a three-point tanker that could refuel tactical aircraft and selected the workhorse of the transport fleet for conversion.
The Ilyushin Il-76 Candid transport was converted to a tanker but was limited in its ‘give-away’ and thus deemed unsuitable. The Ilyushin design bureau then added two large fuel tanks in the Candid’s capacious cargo hold, added three UPAZ-1A refuelling pods and produced a machine with three times the give-away of the original Candid tanker. The Il-78 Midas appeared in 1984 and could be converted back to a transport, but in 1987 the dedicated tanker variant entered service, with the Il-78M Midas carrying three permanently installed fuel tanks in the cargo hold.
The Midas’ refuelling installation is unusual in that rather than a centreline HDU, it carries a third UPAZ-1A pod on the port side of the rear fuselage. The UPAZ-1A pod is unique in that rather than using a propeller to drive a generator like Western pods, it is fitted with a ram-air turbine which generates less drag than the propellors.
Both the Soviet/Russian types on the list are examples of different approaches the same problem. If you want an explanation of the Tupolev system, buy me a pint. Or three. It will take a while.
6. Lockheed C-130 Hercules ‘Boomer Boomer’
I’m standing on a hillside in Wales, arguing the toss about TSR.2 or Tornado ADVs, sometimes poking about in the rock outcrops for something interesting, when the shout goes up ‘Traffic!’. It’s a Herk, in a steep bank as it weaves its way through the valley. Up come the cameras and the shutters make a noise like a MG42 machine gun at full chat. As it passes, still banking, I can see that the rear door is open and there’s two blokes sitting on the ramp, just chilling. It’s an MC-130J Commando II.
The omnipresent C-130 Hercules has been a fixture in Western air forces since the Jurassic Period and has operated as some sort of tanker since 1962. The US Marine Corps and RAF operated most of their tankers as, well, just tankers, but the USAF combined other roles including rescue and special forces support (culminating in the MC-130J that combines all three) These US Hercules tankers are fitted with underwing refuelling pods and refuel support aircraft and helicopters. The MC-130J also has a boom receptacle to receive fuel from USAF tankers to extend their range or time on station. Good gear as they say and worthy of a place in the Top Ten.
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The RAF’s Hercules tankers of the Falklands era took a different tack. They were intended to support other Hercules and even heavies such as the Vulcan and Nimrod. Another important role was support of air defence aircraft based in the Falklands and until RAF Mount Pleasant opened, were the only large aircraft capable of operating from RAF Port Stanley. Installing the underwing Mk.20 pod probably required a lot of plumbing work and couldn’t deliver the fuel fast enough, so a Mk.17 HDU was installed on the cargo ramp, which was sealed and modified to accommodate the drogue. The fuel was held in two or four tanks, auxiliary tanks from the Andover C1, mounted in the cargo bay. Six Hercules C1s were modified as C1(K) and provided sterling service until the new runway was built at Mount Pleasant.
On reflection whatever the job, the Hercules can do it and the only role I can think of not being carried out by a Hercules is fighter, but I’m sure someone will produce a photo of a Herk sporting Sidewinders.
5 . Handley Page Victor – HP Sauce Source
Back in my days as a schoolboy in Scotland, I was absently looking out the window one endlessly long afternoon. My teacher droned on and on, and I was desperate for some stimulation. For some inexplicable reason, the teacher was talking about a young lad who had bought a unicorn at the flea market. This story meant nothing to me as a 13-year-old in an Ayrshire mining village, where the nearest thing to a unicorn was a greyhound with a carbuncle on top of his head. But what happened next certainly did mean a lot to me. It seemed to happen in slow motion, and it filled the sky, revealing its curvaceous wing, the carrots and the dayglo guide markings on its underside (this was 1975 after all). It was a Victor. I was smitten. ‘Gibson! Next word!’ the teacher shouted at me, but I had no idea what to say – I was utterly mesmerized by the appearance of this beautiful spaceship in the sky.
All three V-bombers ended their service lives as tankers, but the most successful of the three (in both roles) was the Victor. As the B2 variant came off the production lines, the Victor B1 fleet was fitted with Flight Refuelling Mk.20 Pods on the outer wings and replaced the various Vickers Valiant tanker variants that were stricken with metal fatigue. The Victor B(K)1 took on the tanker role and as a two-point refueller, supported fighters. They could still be used as bombers, hence the unusual designation, but as the conversions progressed, a Mk.17 Hose Drum Unit (HDU) was installed in the fuselage and fuel tanks in the bomb bay to make these Victor K1s, dedicated tankers that could refuel ‘heavies’.
The K1s were a gap-filler and, as the Vulcans took over the bombing role in Strike Command, the Victor B2s traded their Blue Steels and Yellow Suns for an HDU and Mk.20 pods to become the K2. Anyone who says tankers are boring, I point them at the Victor – it just looks spectacular, even sitting on the ramp it looks like it should be in Star Wars and maneuvering a receiver aircraft to take on fuel from the centreline drogue must provide a most memorable vista. Without the Victor, the RAF’s operations in the South Atlantic, specifically Op Black Buck and support for the Nimrod SAR and maritime surveillance operations, would have been impossible. Similarly, Op Granby, the 1991 campaign to liberate Kuwait, saw RAF and Coalition operations supported by Victors. My only gripe is that the dark grey/dark green over light aircraft grey with the dayglo stripes was superseded by boring hemp.
4. Vickers VC10 ‘I did it Conway ‘
This would have been my Number One, but Dr ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins wouldn’t speak to me again – and quite possibly raise a posse from his mates in the KC-135 ‘community’ to seek me out and beat me with a refuelling boom (or worse!).
Even before Vickers’ VC10 airliner took to the sky in 1962, the Weybridge company was proposing military variants. These included ballistic missile carriers, maritime patrol, AEW and transports but only the transport and tanker variant reached service and it took the latter almost quarter of a century from first proposal to service entry.
By the mid-1970s Britain’s defence posture had pretty much settled down after the long retreat from Empire to focus on northwest Europe and the eastern North Atlantic. The GIUK gap was seen as a crucial theatre and the interdiction of NATO convoys by Soviet forces was viewed as a major threat. With Buccaneers to take out the surface threats and the new Tornado ADV to tackle Soviet air assets, there was a need to increase the RAF’s tanker force from the twenty-odd Victors then in service. Luckily, British Airways was dispensing with its VC10 fleet and, if a few more were acquired from airlines in east Africa, a couple of squadrons could be put together. So, the Air Staff got their tankers and the MoD saved money. It was trebles all round in Whitehall.
The converted airliners were fitted out as three-point tankers with the five K2s and four K3s based on the Standard and Super VC10 respectively with fuel tanks in the cabin, while the five K4s kept the cabin free to be a tanker/transport. In need of further tanker capacity in the late 1990s, the 13 surviving VC10 C1s were fitted with Mk.32 pods to become C1Ks.
The VC10 fleet proved capable, enduring and they looked good with a gaggle of Lightnings, even better with Tornado F3s, the type it was created to support. Unlike the Victor, the VC10 looked better in hemp, even better in Barley grey. You have to admit, the RAF’s primary tankers in the 90s had style.
3. Airbus MRTT ‘Probably the best tanker in the world’
Standing on the deck of an oil rig in the Beryl Field in the arse-end of the North Sea waiting for something to happen, I see a widebody twin heading our way. It wasn’t on the usual air lanes for the civil traffic, so I surmised it was a Voyager supporting a Bear hunt, but as it passed overhead I could see a boom under the rear fuselage. Ah, an A330 MRTT.
Number Three on this list should have been the RAF’s Voyager, but my reasons for it not being Number Three are laid out above. The Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) lives up to its designation. It can refuel anything (it has drogue pods and a boom), anywhere (it comes with a defensive countermeasures suite), any time while carrying cargo and/or passengers.
It says something about a military aircraft competition when the opposition’s argument comes down to the aircraft being too big and taking up too much space on the ramps, thus presenting a tempting target. This was the gist of Boeing’s questionable argument against the EADS/Northrop KC-45 when it was selected as the new USAF tanker. Boeing succeeded in killing the KC-45, leading to the adoption of the problematic Pegasus. Even in late 2022, the argument still rages with each company crying foul and providing plenty of letter-writing practice for m’learned friends.
Meanwhile, former users of the KC-135 such as France and Singapore, who had been considered certain customers for the Pegasus, opted for the A330 MRTT. OK, so the Europeans would have bought anything made by Airbus, but the A330 MRTT seems to be a good piece of kit. I wonder when the MoD will stick a boom on its Voyagers. Won’t be cheap and Margaret Hodge most definitely won’t be pleased.
2. McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender ‘Doogie Hoser, MD’
I was having a good old rummage in the National Archives at Kew in London. At the top of my list of priorities was the British Air Staff’s tanker policy and procurement (I am only human). One of the files held documents relating to an intriguing tale that involved Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Freddie Laker and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. It turned out Winston Churchill’s grandson was pimping out Freddie’s DC-10s as auxiliary tankers to a somewhat disinterested Air Staff in 1978. Jump back a few years to 1973, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 saw a massive airlift of US equipment to Israel. From this effort, the USAF identified the need for a modern aircraft that could operate as a tanker or transport. While this had been the role of the existing KC-97s and KC-135s they were designed to support strategic bombers and never really had sufficient lift capacity in terms of cargo or fuel loads for late-20th-century operations.
The resulting Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft requirement saw bids from Boeing with the 747, McDonnell Douglas’ DC-10 and Lockheed with the TriStar and Galaxy. The Galaxy and 747 were too big, TriStar was too small (admittedly not by much) but the DC-10 was the Goldilocks aircraft. It was just right, could operate from shorter fields than the others. The KC-10A Extender that followed is well-named, thanks its combination of boom and drogue refuelling systems it could support USAF, USN and USMC aircraft in the era of expeditionary warfare that began in 1990 with Operation Desert Shield.
If you have a fighter squadron to move across an ocean, the Extender is the best tool for the job. It can haul the spares, the support personnel and ‘drag’ the fighters. They looked best in Europe 1 camouflage but so did everything else. A worthy Number Two.
- Boeing KC-135 ‘Stratobladder’
I’ll be working in the garden or sitting proofreading in the sunshine, always with one eye watching the sky. To the south, a rapidly-moving contrail appears and as it goes overhead, I don’t need the bins to know that this four-engined jet aircraft going like the clappers and leaving the airliners for dead, is a member of the ‘135 family.
Frankly, mention air-to-air refuelling and the KC-135 is what comes to mind. Equipment doesn’t remain in service for 65 years without being extremely good. They’ve either done or been proposed for just about every support role imaginable. Number One. Nuff said.
–Chris Gibson is the author of several books including t these two. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the site.
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