Air Power 2007: Tankers away! | ADM Mar 07

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By Gregor Ferguson

The RAAF's tanker project, Air 5402, has passed a couple of major milestones recently with more to follow this year.

Thus far, says Defence, the program remains on track despite some inevitable teething problems.

European prime contractor EADS is working up to the first flight later this year of the RAAF's first Airbus A330-200 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT).

According to the RAAF the first flight of the newly modified aircraft should take place during the second quarter of this year.

Not only is the RAAF keen to see it fly, the program forms the basis for EADS's bid (in partnership with Northrop Grumman) to supply a fleet of new KC-30 tankers to the USAF in a program which could be worth up to US$100 billion.

Getting it right for Australia goes a long way to reassuring a US customer who has traditionally favoured domestic suppliers.

The first of five RAAF A330-200s destined for conversion into MRTTs arrived at EADS-CASA's new aircraft modification facility at Getafe, Madrid, in June last year.

There it has been fitted with a Flight Refueling Mk32B hose and drogue pod under each wing (the same model that is now in operational service on the US Air Force's MC-130 and the Airbus A310 tankers flown by Canada and Germany) and EADS' new centreline Aerial Refueling Boom System (ARBS).

The full military conversion includes a two-man Remote Aerial Refuelling Operator (RARO) station adjacent to the flight deck, along with pump and plumbing modifications for the aircraft fuel system.

The operator is able to control both ARBS and pod refueling systems using 3D stereoscopic enhanced vision system for day/night boom operation and a fly-by-wire control system for the flight control of the boom and pods.

The other main military modification consists of an EW Self-Protection system and a Link 16 tactical data link.

The $1.7 billion project has passed several critical milestones.

Not only is this the first A300 to be converted into a tanker; EADS-CASA has had to develop the ARBS from scratch, including designing and certifying both the ARBS itself and the modifications necessary for aircraft installation.

The ARBS is the product of three year, US$100 million in-house R&D effort by EADS.

The ARBS uses fly-by-wire flight controls and an automatic load alleviation system that provides a larger refueling envelope and enhanced controllability.

The RARO station's 3D-vision surveillance system allows the boom operator to remotely control ARBS operations from the cockpit during air-to-air refueling.

The Critical Design Review as completed successfully at the end of June last year.

However, detail design of some elements, especially the Human-Machine Interface associated with the RARO, is still being completed in parallel with the conversion of the aircraft.

A critical milestone was first flight of the ARBS on a modified Airbus A310 testbed.

The A310 was selected because it is aerodynamically and structurally very similar to the A330 (and could even be a candidate for conversion into an ARBS-equipped tanker for other customers in the future); minor supplier and technical problems saw the first flight delayed from late-2005 to March 2006.

The first phase of flight testing, with the boom stowed, was completed in May last year; the second phase began in November and the first flight with the boom actually deployed took place on 30 January.

During this flight the ARBS successfully completed seven full-extension deployments and recoveries to the stowed position.

Tests included evaluation of the boom's operational flight envelope and overall handling characteristics.

The flight also saw flutter tests at different extended boom lengths and at a variety of aircraft bank angles, reflecting real-world operations and flight conditions.

This year will see the completion of aerodynamic flight testing and qualification of ARBS for uncoupled flight (free flight) and coupled flight (with a receiver).

A variety of receivers will be used for this flight test program, likely including French Boeing 707 E-3 AWACS aircraft and F-16s from European air forces.

The RAAF A330 MRTT is being modified into phases in order to remain in step with the ARBS flight test and certification program.

Phase 1 will see installation of all the structural modifications, including the ARBS, under-wing pods and UARSSI, thought these will remain inoperable at this stage.

This phase is scheduled for completion in May to allow flight testing to get under way and achieve civil certification; the aircraft has already completed its test readiness review in preparation for ground testing and then flight test.

The remaining modifications will be completed by the end of 2007, so allowing flight testing and military type certification activities to resume.

The European Aviation safety Authority (EASA) and Spanish Military Airworthiness Authority, INTA, will be responsible for certification of the aircraft and its military modifications; this process will form part of the RAAF's own Type Acceptance Test and Evaluation Program.

This first A330 MRTT was scheduled to delivery to Australia in 2009, and apparently remains on track to achieve this in spite of the delayed start of ARBS flight testing and some re-design work on the RARO station.

The A310 trials program has thrown up no major problems with the ARBS, and no significant problems elsewhere.

However, the detail design process has resulted in several enhancements to the ARBS' visual system and RARO station in order to improve the console ergonomics and the crucial 3-D operator displays.

These changes were agreed in mid-2006 and will be tested and certified on the A330 itself rather than on the A310, as originally planned.

The MRTT development and flight test schedule anticipated problems and so contingency plans exist for parallel test and certification activities using both the A310 and A330, if necessary, to achieve the RAAF's in-service date.

Final testing of the new tanker with RAAF receiver aircraft will be conducted in Australia during 2009.

RAAF Customer Acceptance was scheduled to take place at Getafe in late-2008; it's unclear whether the project will meet this target, but the planned in-service date remains late-2009.

This milestone will see the completion of qualification testing, issue of a military airworthiness certificate and delivery of the first two aircraft.

The second and subsequent aircraft will be delivered from Australia - Qantas Defence Systems will modify them at its Brisbane facility; the first of these aircraft will be delivered to Brisbane in mid-2008 and the modifications are expected to take about seven months per aircraft.

As Prime Contractor, EADS CASA is responsible for sourcing a comprehensive training system for the A330 MRTT and selected CAE Inc last year to supply the full flight and mission simulator, a new training facility and a mission systems trainer under a $46 million contract.

The simulator is due at Amberley in 2009; CAE also has a five year contract directly from Defence to provide five years' support for the A330 MRTT training system.

While the RAAF has become the lead customer for the A330-200 MRTT, which wasn't its original plan, the element of cost and schedule risk associated with such a position is mitigated considerably by the US Air Force's KC-X tanker program, for which a request for Proposal (RFP) was issued on 31 January.

EADS CASA has teamed with Northrop Grumman to bid for this program in competition with Boeing, which is expected to offer tanker variants of its B767 or B777 airliners - the company is already building the KC-767 for Italy and Japan.

With so much at stake EADS CASA has very motivation to ensure that the RAAF aircraft is completed on time and that it works correctly.

ADM understands Defence has been assured the company will not divert resources from the Australian program to support the KC-X marketing effort and the UK's Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) program.

One of the features which attracted the RAAF to the A330 in preference to Boeing KC-767, was the former's greater internal fuel capacity; the A330-200 can carry 111 tonnes of fuel without requiring extra tanks in the cargo bay.

This in turn means the aircraft cabin and cargo bay remain uncluttered and able to carry military useful numbers of personnel as well as cargo.

Northrop Grumman and EADS were concerned, however, that the USAF's KC-X RFT, which came out on 31 January, would unfairly penalise the KC-30 by focusing solely on refuelling capability and price.

EADS and Northrop Grumman freely admit the KC-30 is more expensive than the KC-767 but it carries more fuel and the company claims it offers considerably better value for money when its strategic airlift capabilities are taken into account.

In RAAF service the boast is that a single KC-30/A330-200 MRTT will refuel a flight of six F/A-18 Hornets in a non-stop flight from Darwin to Butterworth in Malaysia while carrying the detachment's ground crew and 95,000lb of support equipment and spares.

The USAF's current KC-135 cannot match this capability.

With that in mind, Boeing has kept its cards very close to its chest and hasn't disclosed whether it will offer the KC-767 or a tanker variant of its much larger B777 airliner which would probably be more expensive but would match the KC-30.

In any event, history shows that if a new aircraft or piece of equipment arrives with extra capabilities which hadn't been anticipated, or asked for, these will immediately be exploited by the operator.

The first stage of the KC-X program, worth about US$40 billion, will see the acquisition of some 179 aircraft.

Replacing the USAF's 530-strong fleet of KC-135s could cost it US$100 billion over the next 20-30 years.

After studying the RFP closely, Northrop Grumman said last month, "After carefully studying the final language in the Air Force's KC-X request for proposals, we and our team members have determined that the Northrop Grumman KC-30 is a very competitive offering that fully supports the Air Force's tanker mission."

The RAAF's A330-200 MRTT illustrates the strategic airlift capabilities offered to the USAF: the main cabin has been laid out in a two-class, twin-aisle configuration with 240 economy class seats and 32 business-class seats.

The cargo hold remains unchanged - all of the aircraft's fuel is carried in existing wing tanks - and the forward and aft cargo areas accommodate up to six military standard 463L cargo pallets, or commercial LD3 or LD6 containers, bulk cargo and baggage.

However, the KC-30 offered to the USAF has the capability to be re-roled and its passenger seating removed to make room for up to 25 463L pallets on the main deck, loaded and unloaded through a large cargo door forward of the wing on the port side.

In the pure tanker role the A330 MRTT can deliver up to 65 tonnes of fuel at a distance of 1,000 stature miles from base, with two hours on station.

The aircraft's main tanks contain 111,000kg of fuel which the ARBS can transfer at 8,000lb/min while the under-wing pods can transfer 2,800lb/min each.

Like the Boeing Wedgetail Airborne early Warning & Control (AEW&C) system, the A330-200 MRTT lies firmly on the RAAF's critical path: until these aircraft are in service, along with new command and control systems, upgraded Hornets and JDAM GPS-guided bombs and JASSM missiles, the RAAF can't safely retire its F-111s.

With the recent decision to explore the acquisition of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets as potential 'bridging fighters' to prevent any chance of a capability gap opening up, the Minister for Defence, Dr Brendan nelson, and the Federal Cabinet have shown they will have a low tolerance for delay.

Copyright - Australian Defence Magazine, March 2007

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