It is only Capitaine Francois Gilbert’s uniform, that of the Armée De L’Air, the Tricolore on its shoulder, which betrays his status. “My brief is to be a 10 Squadron pilot. To do exactly what they do and to go exactly where they go. I report into Wing Commander Jamie Osborne as Officer Commanding 10 Squadron and I follow his orders”, he explains in perfect, if slightly ‘accented’ English.
He joined Voyager from the Groupe de Ravitaillement en Vol: ‘The Bretagne’, which was formed in the deserts of Chad by the Free French Movement at the beginning of 1942 and now operates from Istres Le Tube, just south of Marseille.
His rank ‘translates’ broadly to that of Flight Lieutenant in the RAF, and with 10 years in the Armée De L’Air behind him – six as an air-to-air refuelling (AAR) specialist, flying the Boeing C135 - air transport and air-to-air refuelling, have become his specialism, if not his ‘Raison d'être’.
Capitaine Gilbert ‘joined’ the RAF Voyager programme last year, as part of a three year ‘secondment’ to serve with the RAF and No.10 Squadron. “The culture is perhaps a little different between the French and UK air forces but mostly the same. I suspect that Voyager is a little different anyway from what is ‘normal’ for the RAF because of AirTanker”, he continues.
But these cultural observations are made purely in passing. The French Air Force is expected to place its first order for the MRTT later this year. With the first of 12 tankers built by Airbus Defence and Space to be delivered by 2018, they will replace France’s 14-strong fleet of C135 FR jets, three A310 and two A340.
“I’m here to build an understanding of the MRTT, its capability and training required to fly it so that when I go back, the knowledge and understanding that I have gained here, can be applied to the French AAR programme”, he says.
At the cutting-edge of military aviation, the Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) is the only fully certified new-generation aircraft of its type flying today. Able to carry 111 tonnes of fuel, Voyager, the MRTT in its RAF guise - can support air-to-air (AAR) refueling missions, without the requirement for additional fuel tanks.
With this inherent fuel capacity leaving its’ cargo hold and passenger capacity un-checked, Voyager can carry 291 passengers, eight NATO pallets or a payload of 43 tonnes, or be configured to provide a 40 stretcher medical evacuation capability.
But it’s not just the flexibility in operation but also the technical capability of the aircraft that sets RAF Voyager apart. Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines deliver an impressive 71,000 lbf (316kN) thrust. Fly-by-wire technology protects the flight envelope and reduces crew workload. While a cutting-edge vision system delivers 240 degree rear situation awareness, giving far greater visibility in air-to-air refueling missions.
In its configuration for the French Air Force, the first aircraft delivered will be equipped with a central boom and two underwing pods. Later versions should include a cargo door and specialist datalink which will allow the plane to receive information and transfer information more effectively from the L16 equipped receivers.
“It’s interesting moving from the Boeing to the Airbus”, continues Gilbert, “To begin with one is a 50 year old aircraft the other is new and the fly-by-wire technology is very different but the training is much the same and I believe is being delivered to a very high standard.
“Voyager is particularly good for receiver aircraft. The hose is a little longer and that’s good because they get hit by less turbulence but the wing span is also very good because it’s bigger.
“Air-to-air refuelling is not a ‘natural’ thing. If you had two or three aircraft that closely together it would normally be classed as an accident. The bigger wing span keeps the aircraft further apart and the technology is excellent, which is good for everyone!”
AirTanker has a responsibility for not only the delivery of 14 fully converted A330/MRTT aircraft to the RAF but also the service and support systems which underpin their operation through to 2035. This includes ground and flight operations, engineering, maintenance and dispatch, plus a comprehensive training programme.
This training covers everything from aircraft-type and mission systems training to ground handling and cabin crew courses. “Because I’m still part of the training programme I haven’t had a huge number of hours flying. I have gone through the SIM and classroom programme and done a trip to Akrotiri in addition to flying training sectors”, continues Gilbert.
“I believe the training is being delivered to a very high standard and works well with the civilian instructors, for example Dave Hall and Kieran Roebuck, who have incredible aircraft-type experience.
“It [AirTanker] does a lot of the things that Squadrons would normally do. In France you get the order to carry ‘X’ from ‘A’ to ‘B’. It’s then up to you to file your flight plan, you as a squadron manage diplomatic clearances. Here, all that is done for you. You check that it’s been done correctly but all of that initial work is done by the civilian partnership, which is quite different I think.”
This year represents a watershed for the Voyager programme as it picks up roles previously performed by the VC10 which was retired last autumn and the TriStar, which followed it in March. This includes a new role in support of the RAF’s Quick Response Alert (QRA).
2014 will also see delivery of the nine-Voyager strong core fleet in the summer. In the pursuit of this aim, AirTanker and the Voyager programme took receipt of its seventh aircraft, ZZ337 in late January. This brings the total number of aircraft flying on the MAR to six, (2x two-point tankers and 4x three-point capable tankers).
Since the start of air transport operations in April 2012, these aircraft have together clocked more than 7,200 hours, flying more than 1,940 sectors, carrying more than 125,300 passengers and 8,100 tonnes plus of freight. This includes the start of flights in and out of Camp Bastion in support of the Afghanistan air-bridge in December last year.
Voyager 02, which flies on the Civilian Aircraft Register, has flown more than 2,700 hours and 490 sectors, carrying over 55,600 passengers and more than 3,400 tonnes of freight, since the start of AirTanker’s civilian airline operation at the beginning of 2013.
With a home base south of Marseille and just having come through a winter classed as ‘wet’ by even UK standards, Gilbert concedes that he on occasion, has “missed the sun a little”. But he is hugely complimentary about his hosts’ hospitality. “I have a house just inside the wire at RAF Brize Norton, which is good for me. You don’t really feel that you’re on base. And the squadrons [No.s 10 and 101] have been very welcoming.
He concludes: “It’s been great. I have felt a part of the Squadron since my arrival and I’m sure the rest of my time is going to be good.”