As the UK’s largest military airfield, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) transport base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire is a bustling place.
The tarmac in front of the well-used passenger terminal is usually crowded, with the service’s wide variety of airlifters, plus visiting civilian cargo aircraft and even airliners leased to support operations, all taking a brief pause from the endless task of moving personnel and equipment around the world.
Already hectic due to the co-location of the RAF’s Boeing C-17s, Lockheed TriStars and Vickers VC10s, Brize Norton got even busier in 2011 when it welcomed the UK’s inventory of Lockheed C-130Ks and newer J-model Hercules. They arrived at the site following a decision to close the RAF Lyneham base in neighbouring Wiltshire. All of the types, young and old, continue to play a vital role in maintaining the crucial “air bridge” between home and operations in Afghanistan, or in supporting the combat aircraft deployed there.
Quietly, a new addition has also appeared on the scene, bringing with it the opportunity to transform the RAF’s means of delivering the air transport and air-to-air refuelling missions which underpin the UK armed capability across the globe.
The new era began on 10 April 2012, when a military derivative of Airbus’s A330 widebody airliner left Brize Norton on its first operational flight in RAF markings. Introduced via the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme, and now named Voyager, the new aircraft-type in the process of assuming the duties held by the Conway-powered VC10 force since the mid-1960s and by the second hand RB211-powered TriStars introduced around 20 years later.
For the AirTanker consortium responsible for introducing a core fleet of nine modified A330 tanker/transports, plus five more of the aircraft which will be held at short-notice readiness to support any operational surge, the pressure is on to deliver a seamless transition.
Having been gradually reduced over the last several years, the RAF’s VC10 inventory was recently powered back to just four aircraft. This Rolls-Royce-powered “Conway quartet” will fall silent before the end of September 2013. A mixed fleet of three TriStar transports and four tankers flown by 216 Sqn will follow them into retirement by March 2014.
The UK’s first three Voyagers had transported more than 50,000 passengers and around 3,200t of freight, and accumulated a combined total of around 3,000 flight hours and more than 771 sectors flown by end-April 2013, according to AirTanker. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent 772B-60 turbofans, each capable of producing 71,100lb (316kN) of thrust on take-off, the Voyager can carry up to 291 passengers in a one-class cabin configuration, along with under-floor freight, and has a maximum fuel capacity of 111 tons.
In a unique arrangement, operations have been performed using military-registered aircraft ZZ330 and ZZ331, plus G-VYGG, which will remain on the commercial register throughout the at-least 24-year service duration of the private finance initiative-enabled FSTA deal.
This will give the RAF "guaranteed access and greater flexibility" than is possible today using traditional charter arrangements, AirTanker says.
Crews from the air force’s 10 Sqn fly the Voyager under military regulations, while civilian pilots do so under the terms of AirTanker’s air operating certificate, which was secured from the UK Civil Aviation Authority in December 2012. The first airline-style operation was performed on 5 January, with a Voyager having been used to transport UK military personnel to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
All flights to date have been made only in the passenger transport role, to locations including: Canada, Kenya and the United Arab Emirates. Denoting its heritage as an A330 derivative, the fleet has demonstrated an availability rate of 96 per cent by the end of 2012, with AirTanker citing an on-time performance record of almost 98 per cent.
“Our capability and aircraft usage, is building each and every month that goes by,” says Iain Cullen, AirTanker’s director of flight operations, with the company having expected its aircraft to log a combined 520 flight hours during April.
The UK's fourth Airbus A330 Voyager, ZZ332, touched down at the RAF's Brize Norton air base in Oxfordshire on 26 April this year, it was handed over for use as a three-point tanker: a configuration which includes under-wing hose and drogue refuelling pods and a fuselage refuelling unit. This will be used to support large aircraft types, such as the RAF’s future fleet of 22 Airbus Military A400M Atlas tactical transports, which will enter use at Brize Norton from September 2014, following the retirement of the service’s remaining T56-powered C-130Ks.
Another two Voyagers are due to arrive by the middle of 2013. This expanded fleet strength is due to increase further, to reach seven or eight Voyagers by the end of this year, with a full in-service declaration due to be made by May 2014, as the type is cleared to fully take over the operational provision of air-to-air refuelling (AAR) services.
Preparations to take on the AAR role are already well advanced, with three RAF crews having completed their training in tanker operations for the Voyager at a dedicated training school at Brize Norton by mid-March. First activities to be performed following the MoD’s granting of release to service approval for the critical task will include supporting training involving RAF Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft. They will also later support Eurofighter Typhoons, including extending their flight endurance while tasked with providing quick reaction alert cover for the UK, and also the Falkland Islands. Then from late this decade, the new type will also support the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters to be flown by the RAF and Royal Navy from RAF Marham in Suffolk.
A defensive aid system enhancement programme to be conducted by AirTanker’s engineering team at Brize Norton will also enable the Voyagers to play an important part during the UK’s troop drawdown process in Afghanistan, as the UK works towards ending its combat involvement in the country by late 2014.
Once the FSTA service is at full strength, the tanker/transports will be operated by 30 RAF crews of two pilots each, plus 37 mission system operators, who will specialise in tasks including air-to-air refuelling provision. This will include the formation of a second squadron, to join 10 Sqn in operating the type. Seven civilian crews of two pilots each will be provided by AirTanker, with these sponsored reservist personnel also to be trained to perform some military flying tasks.
Cullen says AirTanker has been “hugely impressed” by the standard of the candidates who have applied to become sponsored reservist pilots, with these having included highly experienced training captains from the airline sector. At least a dozen have been recruited so far, including five instructors, and the first two pilots graduated from officer training at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire in December 2012, both with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
“Our recruitment process placed significant emphasis on getting people who shared and understood not only our values but those of the RAF,” says Cullen, who adds that the right ethos is needed if crews are to be moved between flying a commercial Voyager one week, and then donning their RAF uniforms with no disruption to the service.
AirTanker’s so-called “surge” fleet will be drawn on as required to support the MoD’s operational needs, but ordinarily made available for third-party use by other militaries or civilian customers. The company says it is now “exploring actively several business scenarios on how we can use that capability”. But early experience suggests that the five additional airframes will be in demand. “The A330 enjoys a strong reputation in the commercial environment and that’s crossing over into the military sector,” Cullen says. “ “We’re currently exploring a number of opportunities for military and civilian applications but the point is that the demand is there across sectors and we have the flexibility in the aircraft and in our organisational structure to meet it.”
A joint military and civilian operations team at Brize Norton is already providing a slick dispatch service, but AirTanker is using all the information at its disposal to analyse the cause of any delays during its operations: even down to the minute. Similar attention is also being paid to the Voyager’s fuel consumption statistics while operating in the air transport role, where its two under-wing hose-and-drogue refuelling pods are removed in order to reduce drag, as all fuel saved can be offered to receiver aircraft.
Now an increasingly regular sight in the circuit around Brize Norton, the RAF’s Voyager fleet is ready to take on the range of tasks being expected of it, with a mix of military and civilian crews responsible for its operating and maintenance. Five years after the MoD signed its FSTA deal with the AirTanker team of Babcock, Cobham, EADS, Rolls-Royce and Thales, the new arrival is ready to deliver the goods.
While many will be moved by their last experience of hearing the VC10’s wonderful engines roar later this year, the capability, versatility and reliability of the RAF’s replacement Voyager fleet should more than compensate in operational terms. And who knows; perhaps one day, enthusiasts might even flock to Brize Norton to hear the A330’s Rolls-Royce tuned “Trent duet” on take-off?