Refueling Mishap Unlikely To Affect Delivery.

Multi-Role Tanker Transport.

14th Feb 2011


Introduction.

On January 19 this year Australia’s first KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport lost part of its refueling boom as a consequence of a midair incident at high altitude involving a Portugese F-16. This occurred some distance off the coast of Lisbon. However, according to Airbus Military as well as the Royal Australian Air Force (see separate interview with Air Marshal Mark Binskin) the delivery of the first aircraft remains close and has not been adversely affected by the accident causing the loss of the boom.

The accident.

At around 5pm on January 19 a Portuguese F-16 was carrying out a routine refueling procedure within the normal flight envelope of the Australian KC-30A. The Portugese Air Force has been supporting the Australian flight test programme – along with Spain and France – and the F-16 needed to go through the refueling exercise to retain currency. After making contact with the boom and for reasons that are the subject of a detailed investigation, the nozzle broke off. Secondly, the boom flexed, lost aerodynamic symmetry and began to oscillate, striking the tanker as it did so. As a consequence, the boom snapped approximately half way along its length – exactly as it is designed to do in the event of such an episode.

There were no Australians on board, the F-16 suffered almost no damage – possibly as little as some superficial scratches – and the pilots of the KC-30A continued their flight without declaring an emergency. The tanker itself was undamaged because the swinging boom struck part of the airframe that had been heavily reinforced for such a contingency. The crew immediately notified the Spanish authorities and then the RAAF of what had occurred. The tanker returned to its base of Getafe near Madrid. The part of the boom that broke away fell into deep water far from the coastline.

Without minimizing the seriousness of the event, air-to-air refueling is an inherently tricky business and these types of accidents have been known to occur with other types of tankers even in benign conditions. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)

The Investigation.

According to Luis Guerra-Pena, Head of the A330 MRTT RAAF Programme, the investigation is being carried out by two independent teams under the leadership of Airbus Military and with full RAAF involvement. Separate teams are used to minimize the possibility of something being overlooked and both groups have access to exactly the same technical data.

A bonus for the investigators is that the RAAF KC-30A – being a prototype - was fully instrumented for flight-testing and so the information available to the teams should be comprehensive.

Mr Guerra-Pena is confident that the investigation will be straightforward. He indicated that Airbus Military believe they have a good understanding of what took place but he was not prepared to pre-empt the official findings.

The damaged KC-30A.

The tanker needs to have a new boom installed and – fortunately for the programme’s sometimes troubled schedule – the aircraft was due to have a period of maintenance in late January to allow all of the flight testing hardware to be removed prior to its delivery to the RAAF. This was always going to be a large job, involving the removal of the flight test console along with 212 kilometres of associated wiring and then the re-installation of a much smaller monitoring console.

Another piece of good fortune – or good planning – is that a spare boom was already at Getafe awaiting transport to Australia as part of the delivery package for the first aircraft. This second boom will now be installed on the KC-30A while Airbus Military manufacture a replacement.

Delivery.

On October 6, 2010 Airbus Military announced that they had obtained certification for the A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport from the Spanish military certification authority Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Aerospacial (INTA). This certification was carried out at the request of the RAAF and covered all of the aircraft, including the refueling system. Civil certification had been granted earlier in the year. On November 17 the first of several RAAF aircrews arrived in Madrid to commence training on the KC-30A prior to flying the aircraft to Australia. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)

At this point hopes were high in Airbus Military that the RAAF might be able to take delivery of the first tanker before Christmas. However, this did not materialize because the handover of a first-of-type modern military aircraft is a slow and complex process - sometimes excruciatingly so. The reason is that the customer must be satisfied that all contractual conditions have been met, including the delivery of a vast quantity of technical manuals, training aids, spare parts, support equipment, and so on. Some of these issues become matters of further negotiation, discussion and clarification between the parties – and all of that takes time.

As the buyer, the RAAF has the final say on when delivery will take place and at this stage they will not do so - other than to indicate this will be soon. APDR takes this to mean the March / April timeframe – unless further problems occur.

Formally known as AIR 5402, the project is two years behind its original schedule – but some of this slippage has been by mutual agreement. After some unhappy and very public recent experiences with contracting for complex Defence projects, Australia has an aversion to being the lead customer for developmental systems such as the MRTT. Originally the UK Royal Air Force was to be the lead customer for the aircraft. However, the RAF took so unexpectedly long in sorting out their Private Finance Initiative purchase that the RAAF moved ahead in the delivery schedule.

As the unplanned owner of the prototype aircraft, the RAAF has been working co-operatively with Airbus Military to fine-tune the features of the aircraft and this has been the cause of some of the slippage in schedule. Nevertheless AIR 5402 was placed on the Government’s ‘Projects of Concern’ list in October 2010.

The Capability.

When the aircraft are delivered they will add a massive level of capability to the RAAF – whether this be for distant military or humanitarian missions. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) The extraordinary capacity of the twin-engine KC-30A to carry 111 tonnes of fuel is a result of its commercial A-330 airframe. The wing of the A-330 – where most of the fuel is carried - is the same as the much larger, longer range, four engine A-340. In some configurations an A-340 is able to fly 15,000km with a full load of passengers and cargo.

At the moment, RAAF aircraft can only fly as far as a single load of fuel can take them. The KC-30As will transform the Air Force into a service with truly global reach. A single tanker based at Tindal in the Northern Territory could theoretically take a flight of four Super Hornets beyond Beijing, to the tip of South America or the East Coast of Africa.

The RAAF chose to equip the KC-30As with two types of refueling systems – a probe and drogue on each wing and a centerline boom. Thanks to this decision the tankers will be able to refuel all types of aircraft in the inventory – current and planned. They can even refuel each other.

The head of Airbus Military, Mr Domingo Urena, says the A-330 “was born to be a tanker.” Others have come to the same conclusion and the aircraft has also been purchased by Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Multi-Roles.

As well as its principal function as a tanker, the aircraft can carry up to 280 troops and simultaneously eight cargo pallets. Range is a function of the amount of fuel that can be carried, which in turn is limited by the maximum takeoff weight of the aircraft. For example, a KC-30A with 280 troops and 15 tonnes of cargo has a range of 12,400 kilometres – enough for direct flights between Australia and Afghanistan.

This sort of capacity not only benefits Australia militarily but also allows distant humanitarian missions, including the evacuation of Australian citizens from strife-torn countries.

The US situation.

The US is close to making a choice in its long running and controversial air-to-air refueling contract for a total of 179 aircraft. The competition is between Boeing with a modified 767 and Airbus Military with the A-330 MRTT. For this reason alone, the Australian project has the attention of the senior management of the company because it is such an important reference. The boom on the RAAF MRTT is exactly the same as the one bid to the US.

If the US decision is made purely on operational merit the MRTT would be selected – indeed it was the winner of an earlier competition, the result of which was overturned after a protest from Boeing. However, for a order of this size a number of additional factors come in to play, especially with the US still struggling to recover from the recession. Even though Airbus has offered to undertake significant work in the US, emotionally many legislators see Boeing as the home-grown battler.

The issue is further clouded by accusation and counter-accusation about Government subsidies to both Boeing and Airbus which – it is alleged – allowed the companies to develop and market their respective tankers. This matter has been the subject of a long and acrimonious series of hearings involving the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In essence, the WTO has found that there is some substance to the mutual allegations and the public debate has now moved from whether or not the companies have benefited from State handouts – it seems they both have – to which one has received the most.

How this will play out in the highly politicized US military procurement system remains unclear.

 

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