Three decades on from a daring tanking mission in support of a bombing operation over the skies of the South Atlantic, Voyager Media discovers that ‘little’ and ‘much’, has changed in air-to-air refuelling.

“If he stooped, Bob Wright could see a small swatch of glass that had somehow escaped the path of fuel streaking down the jet’s fuselage. . . Without invitation, from his position on the ladder between the pilots’ ejection seats, the Nav Radar began a commentary on what he could see.

‘Up a bit . . . In a bit’ he directed and Withers and Russell listened. . . They were managing, just, to maintain contact and take on fuel. Thirty-three thousand pounds. Thirty-four thousand. Thirty-five, Thirty-five and a half, six, seven, eight, nine.

“As the numbers passed through 36,000lbs, the Vulcan’s dark shape began to drop backwards out of Padbury’s view. ‘He’s going back smoothly, he’s free.’

“With the fuel transfer complete, Barry Neal raised the Vulcan over the RT. . . ‘Well done. Right, We’ll take you home . .’ Neal left it a moment and then, almost as an afterthought asked how it had gone? There was a long pause, filled with static as Withers thought about how to respond. Then the RT Clicked ‘Not so bad’.

The extract from Vulcan 607 by Rowland White, charts the final refuelling contact between the No. 101 Sqn crew of Vulcan XM607 and that of No. 57 Squadron’s Victor XM717, as part of a daring bombing raid - the first time a Vulcan had been used to drop bombs and also one of No 101 Sqn’s last as a bomber squadron.

The mission, Operation Black Buck, was launched on 30 April 1982 from Ascension Island, two Avro Vulcan B2’s (only one of which would carry out the attack) heading the raid and each carrying 21 x 1,000 lb (454 Kg) bombs. Their target was the airfield at Stanley, the only hard runway on the Falkland Islands and vital to the Argentinian forces for their supplies and reinforcements.

But if Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers and his crew were the lead players in an audacious raid some 8,000 miles from home and 3,900 miles from the nearest friendly base, they were supported by a cast of hundreds.

The success of the mission had started more than a month earlier at the Squadron’s then home base at RAF Waddington. Here a round-the-clock engineering effort had been launched to completely overhaul an aircraft built for operations over Europe and NATO waters and to equip it for long distance missions. 

The operation itself also included a cast of many. To get it to its target, and to return to Ascension Island, each of seven Operation Black Buck missions required the support of twelve Handley Page Victor K2 tankers from Nos. 55 and 57 Squadrons on the outbound leg and a further two Victors and a Nimrod on the return leg.

“At the time it was one of the longest air-to-air refuelling (AAR) trails ever undertaken”, says Sgt Paul Riley, No. 101 Sqn. He continues: “It remains one of the very best examples of trail procedures. It was an incredible operation.”

Three decades on and in a newly created role of Missions Systems Operator, Sgt Riley is part of a next generation of aircrew. Serving on Voyager, the RAF’s new strategic AAR and air transport capability he and his colleagues are at the vanguard of global AAR technology flown by a Nos. 101 and No. 10 Squadron.

This is underpinned by AirTanker in the delivery of a state-of-the-art 14-strong Voyager fleet. A derivative of the proven MRTT (Multi Role Strategic Transport Tanker), a military conversion of the Airbus A330-200, Voyager delivers new strategic air transport and air-to-air refuelling asset to the RAF. AirTanker also delivers the service and infrastructure which underpins the aircraft’s operation by the RAF.


“AAR provides an extension of capability to smaller aircraft”, says Riley. He continues: “aircraft are limited by maximum take-off weight dependent on pay load, particularly bomber and fighter aircraft. AAR gives those aircraft a massively increased range and far greater capability to attack a wider range of targets. The same principles that applied to Operation Black Buck still apply today.”

Riley joined the RAF in 1996, graduating as a Propulsion Mechanic from RAF Cosford to join No. 29 Squadron at RAF Coningsby maintaining Tornado F3s in support of Quick Reaction Alert. Qualifying as an Engineering Technician Propulsion following another stint at Cosford, and a posting north of the border, he transferred to Aircrew in 2002 as an WSOp Air Engineer, securing a posting to No. 101 Squadron in 2004 on the VC10 until joining Voyager in 2013. 

“In an air transport role the Mission Systems Operator (MSO) acts as Purser with a responsibility to take care of everything in the aircraft from behind the pilots’ seats. The Captain and the First Officer have responsibility for achieving the task and maintain overall responsibility for the mission but the MSO manages everything to the rear of the flightdeck” says Riley.

He continues: “That includes passengers and payload, liaison with ground staff and engineers, finance, taxes, airport fees, catering, hotel costs, diplomatic admin.

“But we also have an AAR role. The pilot at the controls is in command but the MSO’s role and that of the non-flying pilot is to support them in achieving the AAR mission. That could be flying out over the North Sea or to any one of the 14 Air Refuelling Areas in support of fast jet training exercises, in support of aircraft movements or in a QRA [Quick Response Alert] role, if fighters are scrambled.”

With a payload of up to 111 tonnes of fuel and range at full fuel load of 8,000 nautical miles (9,200 miles) RAF Voyager delivers a step-change in AAR capability to the RAF. This includes a capability for the first time, for simultaneous contacts on the wing pods from a large capacity tanker. Seven of the 14-strong fleet can also be configured to include a centreline fuselage refuelling unit.

The aircraft in its military configuration has been adapted to include the Mission Systems Console, used by the AAR Mission Systems Operator to direct receiver aircraft when in close AAR formation. Panoramic rear visibility is delivered by 10 different cameras giving Pilots and AAR Mission Systems Operators the ability to monitor receiver aircraft. This includes wing-tip to wing-tip day and night view with pan and zoom capability.

“The cameras are the most significant development giving wing-tip to wing-tip visibility”, says Riley, “the system also does a lot of work for the crew. There is still work to do on the integration of some of the systems and there are one or two current constraints that we need to iron out but we have come a very long way in a short space of time.”   


  A C130 plugs in behind a RAF Voyager as seen from the MSO Console


Riley continues: “AAR takes two primary forms, towlines and trails. On towlines the fighter will take responsibility for their own fuel, taking as needed based on planned availability. On a trail, we as a crew will take a measure of that responsibility also providing long range communications and navigation.

“Trails are about getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’, often it will be a roulement from the Middle East, change of airframes or an operation, for example enforcement of the no fly zone over Libya in 2011.

“Generally, you’re taking up to four aircraft with you and will operate to a pre-defined refuelling plan created by the Air-to-Air Refuelling Coordination Cell (ARCC). You’re following set processes and plans.

“In theory towlines are simpler. We operate to the ATP56C NATO procedure and everyone knows the set process. They join from the left hand side, we stack them at 1,000ft below.  the aircraft joining at 1,000ft, 2,000 ft, 3,000ft and so on, a little bit like a conveyor belt, with each set of receiver aircraft taking fuel in sequence. It’s all about being a service provider to those pilots.”


FACTBOX: RAF Voyager AAR technical capability



  • All Voyager aircraft can be fitted with Cobham 905 wing-pods, which are used to refuel fast jets including Typhoon and the Tornado GR4.
  • Two aircraft can be refueled at the same time.
  • Fuel is dispensed through hoses which extend to 28m (90ft) when fully trailed.
  • The system also uses the NATO standard MA4 coupling which ensures fuel is delivered to receiver aircraft at 50 psi.
  • The maximum flow from each pod is 1,200kg/minute.


Fuselage Refuelling Unit (FRU)

  • Seven aircraft in the fleet can be fitted with the Cobham Fuselage Refuilling Unit (FRU), which gives Voyager a centerline refuelling capability primarily for use in the refuelling of large aircraft.
  • The centerline hose is 28m (90ft) when fully trailed
  • The system uses the NATO standard MA4 coupling, which ensures fuel is delivered to receiver aircraft at 50 psi.
  • The maximum flow on the centreline is 1,800kg/minute.


The new strategic reach delivered by Voyager is not lost on Riley. “As magnificent as the VC10 was and with the Tristar, there was a capability gap. As an Air Engineer on the VC10 I would spend 50 per cent of my time focusing on the AAR mission and the remainder on making sure that the aircraft was operating within its limitations.

“And that was frustrating because we knew that there was more that we could do. Voyager now gives us that capability. We’re starting out from a baseline of what the VC10 and Tristar could do and we’re pushing forward.

“There is still work to do to refine systems and processes - AAR is complicated and there are always going to be things that we’re going to need to develop and to address but Voyager gives us a far greater reach. We haven’t even tested the water yet.”


 MSO Sgt Paul Riley, No. 101 Sqn


30 April 2014