RAF Voyagers on patrol

An article from the AirForces Monthly Yearbook 2024, where Alan Warnes interviews the Officer Commanding of 101 Sqn about the increased taskings of the RAF’s Voyagers since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine

The A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) Voyager has revolutionised the way the RAF does its business. Not only can it fulfil a strategic transport role, but the RAF’s ten air-to-air refuelling-configured (AAR) MRTTs can each carry 111 tons of fuel with the capacity to offload a lot to thirsty fighters and larger transport aircraft.

Some of its most notable work in recent years has included Operation Pitting in August 2021, when the Voyager took part in the RAF’s evacuation of Kabul. There have also been regular annual deployments refuelling fighters flying to the likes of Exercise Red Flag at Nellis AFB in the US, while Exercise Pitch Black saw a Voyager escort four Eurofighters around the world to Australia last summer; that was no walk in the park. 

These are all in addition to the standing RAF commitments, supporting air defence quick reaction alerts at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, and Mount Pleasant Airfield, Falkland Islands, as well as Eurofighters detached to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus for Op Shader missions over Iraq and Syria.

A Typhoon moves in to connect with the extended hose and drogue of a Voyager. The RAF’s fleet of Voyagers are kept extremely busy with ops all over the world. Since February 24, 2022 the MRTT has been heavily used for tanking RAF Typhoons on combat air patrol over NATO’s eastern flank
A Typhoon moves in to connect with the extended hose and drogue of a Voyager. The RAF’s fleet of Voyagers are kept extremely busy with ops all over the world. Since February 24, 2022 the MRTT has been heavily used for tanking RAF Typhoons on combat air patrol over NATO’s eastern flank Crown Copyright

Full on with AAR

On February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Voyagers were called upon to support the RAF Typhoon combat air patrols in two completely different areas of Eastern Europe.

Wg Cdr Udall, Officer Commanding of 101 Sqn based at RAF Brize Norton, said of the step up in requirements: “While we are always busy, what we saw was a rapid change in our prioritisation. Whereas in the past we had a balance in our standard air refuelling commitments, and moving people around the world, we suddenly needed to go heavily towards providing AAR into eastern Europe.

“We saw a spike, but the greater challenge was adapting to working under different command and control and in different air space, not knowing what would come next. But we didn’t have to alter our AAR standard operating procedures significantly, it was more of how we got to our area of ops, the routing, flight plans and timings rather than the mechanics of the job. We saw a controlled surge, which we were ready for and our NATO allies supported us very well in their airspace.”

The Voyager Force (VF) had the capacity to confront NATO’s AAR requirement by committing to fewer transport responsibilities. These can be flown by airlines, and, as the VF went all in for AAR, the transport side almost stopped. Wg Cdr Udall added: “The benefits of working with Air Tanker is that their three white aircraft, if available, can easily step up because the company is very familiar with the way we work and there are contractual mechanisms for that. So, in the early days we saw the white fleet taking more of the transport, while the grey fleet got on with AAR.”

The first Voyager sortie to NATO’s eastern flank came at 0721hrs on February 24, 2022 to refuel RAF Typhoons on combat air patrol (CAP) in northeast Europe, just hours after Russia’s invasion. Providing reassurance to other NATO members on the eastern flank is what these missions are still all about. The Voyagers can come under the auspices of NATO or under national command. When they are working with NATO, the likes of French Rafales, German Tornados, Spanish F/A-18 Hornets, US Navy Hornets and all European variants of Eurofighters are refuelled. However, the RAF Voyagers are limited by the fact they are hose and drogue equipped, which means F-16s and other aircraft that are boom-fed, cannot be supplied. It is obviously a disadvantage, but Wg Cdr Udall would not be drawn on whether there are any prospects of that changing. Under national command, which is where the bulk of the work is, it’s not such a problem because most RAF aircraft are fitted with probes to access the drogues.

An RAF Voyager took four RAF Typhoons to Exercise Pitch Black in Australia over a week last August. They participated in the drills, before heading back home.
An RAF Voyager took four RAF Typhoons to Exercise Pitch Black in Australia over a week last August. They participated in the drills, before heading back home. Crown Copyright

NATO ops

In the early days there was lots of effort put into integration during the NATO Eastern Flank ops, but progressively the RAF is getting involved in more complex ways. “Quite often we will take Typhoons to Baltic states; we will top them off, so they are pretty full of fuel. They will then do some air-to-air or air-to-ground training – and learn to interoperate [with the likes of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers]. They might do that for a couple of hours, then we will bring them back.

“It’s an easy way for them to train together, without taking a lot of people, or basing spare parts and logistics at another base – it allows them to operate with different nations and achieve that effect from our main bases.”

Of the time in the air, three hours is transiting with the fighters, and that’s because the Voyager is flying between 26,000 and 28,000ft. If they flew higher, as they normally do, then they would reach their destination faster. Three hours allows the Voyager to meet up with the Typhoons over the North Sea, east of RAF Coningsby, and if they are from RAF Lossiemouth that’s a bit further north. Wg Cdr Udall explained: “We give them fuel when they are still close to the UK and top them up when they are a bit closer to the combat air patrol. To make life easier and in case of an issue, we will stick with them, provide weather reports et cetera along the way for nearby airfields, and it’s easier than trying to rendezvous with them again when we get to the CAP.”

Then of course it is another three hours to get back to the UK. The largest amount of fuel to be offloaded to date, is 44 tons, to Typhoons over Poland on CAP.

Wg Cdr Udall added: “There is always a trade off with the longer the Voyagers are airborne because it means they have to give less away. We did consider forward deploying in early stages but we wanted to get the most out of Voyager and the fast jets. We have more flexibility at the main base, we can flip different crews on different tasks, use the aircraft overnight for other activities. Running things from main base is much more efficient. If the CAPs were further afield, there would be a stronger case to forward deploying, as we do at RAF Akrotiri.

“It was felt that the UK to Poland and Baltics was do-able in the flying time the crews were restricted to. If you consider the maximum amount of time the Typhoons are operating (with the discomfort of sitting for hours in an ejection seat) their mission length fits nicely into the maximum flying hours regulation for our tanker crews.”

For NATO missions, the average Voyager sortie is 7hrs 40mins; the longest has been 9hrs 50mins. While they generally stick with the fighters all that time, the near ten hours mission would have meant the Voyager was given another tasking on top of looking after the Typhoons.

When on-station, the Voyager usually has a race-track course in eastern Europe of about 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, the 101 Sqn OC said: “If it’s any smaller, then the tanker is turning a lot and refuelling in the turn is more difficult for the fighter.”

By mid-December, the Voyager Force had flown more than 270 missions (around 1,900 hours) in support of NATO’s reassurance ops. Around 170 missions have been flown from the UK (known as the ‘northern tanker’) and 100 from RAF Akrotiri (‘southern tanker’). With the latter, the Typhoons tend to fly up to the Black Sea around Bulgaria and Romania and the Voyagers support them through Turkey/Greece and bring them back.

The Voyager KC2 is equipped with two underwing pods for refuelling fast jets, while the KC3 has an additional centreline hose for use by large aircraft, as this C-130J Hercules illustrates
The Voyager KC2 is equipped with two underwing pods for refuelling fast jets, while the KC3 has an additional centreline hose for use by large aircraft, as this C-130J Hercules illustrates Crown Copyright

Hoses and drogues

There are ten A330 MRTT Voyagers serving the RAF, fitted with two or three hose/drogues, although the Wg Cdr wouldn’t give the precise split. All ten are capable of accommodating the three hose/drogue fit. Of the additional four in the Air Tanker contract, one is used for the Falklands air bridge flown by Air Tanker crews or reservists while the other three are strategic reserves. “They are used by Air Tanker to earn additional revenue to decrease the cost of the contract, but we can use them if required. We could also charter other aircraft for air transport, but we can’t do that with AAR, which is solely our business. The balance varies, but the overall demand is quite high.

The three hose and drogues are never used at the same time, because the RAF doesn’t have the clearances (certification) and as the fighters normally operate in pairs that’s not an issue according to Wg Cdr Udall. The centre hose is used for the heavies like the A400Ms, C-130Js but not the C-17As.

The fleet leader for the NATO ops is ZZ330, which by mid-December had flown more than 56 sorties from RAF Akrotiri, when it was based there. For efficiency, the missions are flown with a standard crew.

 

Southern tanker

For a long time now, the VF has had an aircraft in Akrotiri, Cyprus and Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, offering a supporting role to the Typhoons there. They are also in the latter to offer an aeromedical evacuation and every now and again they ‘flex’ (as the RAF refers to it) because one might be needed elsewhere or they need to be augmented. “For quite a bit of last year we were conducting Black Sea ops, [around Bulgaria and Romania] so we put an extra aircraft in Cyprus to support NATO’s Black Sea flank,” said Wg Cdr Udall.

“We helped the Typhoons get to/back but during the Typhoon deployment to Mihail Kogalniceanu in Romania last year we were seldom required. While based forward, they didn’t tend to need us as much.

“If they are launching from RAF Akrotiri, we tend to route via Turkish/Greek air space and bring them back again. It’s always better to get them back, than having them land somewhere for fuel to make the most of the assets and reduce the chances of technical issues.”

The Voyagers are an incredibly sought-after aircraft, with around eight of the ten currently being flown by VF almost every day, heavily biased towards AAR, although in the past it has been more evenly balanced. There have been times when it had to skew the other way too, as Wg Cdr Udall explained: “One case was during Op Pitting, when we still had to keep our standard commitments going. During the evacuation of Kabul, the tactical airlifters went forward, and we ensured there was a short notice air bridge into a common safe location, so people could be flown to UK. A lot of the soldiers and RAF personnel enabled the extraction of evacuees, some of whom had never been in an aircraft and were very anxious and often distressed. The tactical air transport aircraft are designed to go into hostile areas fly them back to a safer area, and we provide the air bridge to the UK, because we have the capacity and reach for that strategic lift.”

The A330 MRTT Voyager KC2/3 is an unsung hero, proven over its 11 years of operations, in the strategic airlift and air refueller role – even if it doesn’t have a refuelling boom! afm

In addition to CAPs in northeast Europe, a Voyager based at RAF Akrotiri has been supporting Typhoons on CAP close to the Black Sea. In mid-2022, the RAF had Typhoons based at Mihail Kogalniceanu, as part of Operation Biloxi to support Romania and Bulgaria
In addition to CAPs in northeast Europe, a Voyager based at RAF Akrotiri has been supporting Typhoons on CAP close to the Black Sea. In mid-2022, the RAF had Typhoons based at Mihail Kogalniceanu, as part of Operation Biloxi to support Romania and Bulgaria Crown Copyright

A330 MRTT crew

On AAR missions there is a minimum of three personnel in a crew, and if it’s busy it can also include a cabin supervisor. The third member is the boom operator who is a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) who will control the hoses via the boom frequencies – clear the fighters behind the hose and monitor how it is going, while the pilots will not just fly the aircraft but monitor air traffic and navigation. The cabin supervisor (also an NCO) will support the three-man crew, with food and drink during the longer missions allowing them to take a break and go to the toilet if required.

 

Pitch Black

While the 101 Sqn Executive Officer went to lead the Voyager during the exercise at Darwin in Australia from August 19 to September 8, a lot went via the Wg Cdr’s desk. “It was quite audacious to get the [four] Typhoons out there. The Voyager left on August 12, then night-stopped at Akrotiri, Cyprus [before] heading off.”

The next stop was Al Dhafra, UAE (although the RAF would not confirm this due to local sensitivities), Delhi in India, then Paya Lebar, Singapore, arriving at Darwin on the 18th. Returning, the aircraft stopped at, Penang in Malaysia, Delhi, a location in the Middle East, RAF Akrotiri and RAF Lossiemouth. It was obviously a complex long-range mission.

The 101 OC picks up: “While there we had some key successes – we performed cell refuelling – when tankers orbit with a half mile separation, and refuel the fighters, which we did with NATO’s MMU [Multinational Multirole tanker transport Unit) A330 MRTTs. To us Pitch Black demonstrated our freedom of manoeuvre and proved we have rapid worldwide reach. It’s not easy, but it is achievable.

“We always prefer to refuel during the day, so we can see the massive thunderstorms over the Indian Ocean!” Daytime is also better for emergencies: “You don’t want to do that at night, particularly if it includes an ejection. You fly four to six hours during the day, then land and the engineers prep the aircraft for the mission the next day, and you get on your way. You can pre-position tankers to en route stops but then you have to confront other issues.

If you liked this article, the full book is available from Key Publishing Shop

 

 

 

Shopping powered by Key Publishing Shop Key Publishing Shop