RAF’s VIP Voyager resumes tanker operations

The RAF’s recently unveiled, special schemed Voyager KC2 – which will represent the UK in a VIP transport role – returned to its primary role in providing air-to-air refuelling (AAR) operations on June 26.

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Airbus A330 Voyager KC2 - serial ZZ336 (c/n 1363) "Vespina" - provides air-to-air refuelling for F-35B Lightning fighters from No 617 Squadron "The Dambusters" during Exercise Crimson Ocean. MoD Crown Copyright/Cpl Alex Scott

Now known as “Vespina”, the aircraft – serial ZZ336 (c/n 1363) – took to the skies to provide AAR support to RAF-operated Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s and Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning fighter aircraft during Exercise Crimson Ocean.

The operation took place the day after the Voyager arrived back at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, wearing its new bespoke paint scheme. The livery, which cost £900,000 (US$1.1m), was applied at Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group’s (MADG’s) facility in Cambridgeshire.

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"Vespina" returned to supporting regular RAF operations in its traditional AAR refuelling role on June 26 - the day after it returned to service in its new, bespoke paint scheme. MoD Crown Copyright/Cpl Alex Scott

Exercise Crimson Ocean – a joint effort between the RAF and Royal Navy – allows both services to train and hone routine fighter and helicopter operations from the HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) – the Royal Navy’s new flagship aircraft carrier.

The F-35Bs that took part in the exercise belonged to No 617 Squadron ‘The Dambusters’, which were operating from the aircraft carrier. In total, four Lightning aircraft deployed to HMS Queen Elizabeth from RAF Marham, Norfolk, on June 10 – becoming the UK’s first operational F-35Bs to do so.

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Although it has taken on a new role in the public eye, ZZ336 "Vespina" will still be on call to provide AAR and personnel transport support alongside the rest of the RAF's Voyager Force. MoD Crown Copyright/Cpl Alex Scott

The exercise proved that the newly painted Voyager was still able to undertake its existing AAR and personnel transport role, unaffected by its new global VIP transport mission. “Vespina” departed RAF Brize Norton and spent most of the day airborne, providing refuelling support for the fighter aircraft involved.

In a press release, the RAF said: “So whilst for the time being, the VIP Voyager is back to its ‘day job’ [but] the aircraft will soon be fulfilling its important VIP role, displaying the Union Flag livery for the UK across the world when transporting ministerial, Royal and their delegations on trade, diplomatic and other missions.”

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An RAF Typhoon FGR4 receives fuel from Vespina on June 26. MoD Crown Copyright/Cpl Alex Scott

Wg Cdr Alistair Scott, officer commanding the RAF’s No 10 Squadron ‘Shiney Ten’, said: “The new livery looks superb but the reality is that flying this aircraft is no different to any of the other aircraft that make up the Voyager Force.

“It is capable of conducting the same essential defence tasks, not least of which is the [AAR] role that allows us to deploy our Typhoon and Lightning aircraft to every corner of the globe. Taking part in Exercise Crimson Ocean is a great opportunity to show what Voyager can do,” he added.

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MAcR Wellham-Jones oversees the refuelling of an RAF Typhoon FGR4 from ZZ336 "Vespina." MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt 'Matty' Matthews

Plans for the refurbishment originated during the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015, which outlined plans to use a Voyager aircraft in this high-profile VIP transport role. However, until now the aircraft had been visually indistinguishable to other Voyager multi-role tanker/transport (MRTT) aircraft operated by the RAF.

After “Vespina” was unveiled, observers were quick to take to social media to point out that the Union Flag applied on the tail was backwards or upside down. This is a notable misinterpretation. When looking at the starboard side (right hand side) of the aircraft, the observer is looking at the reverse side of the flag. This method is applied on a number of RAF aircraft bearing the Union Flag and the convention is even followed on the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) VC-25A – Air Force One – aircraft.

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"Vespina" on the ground at RAF Brize Norton, prior to departing for its first operational sortie since it returned to service on June 25. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt 'Matty' Matthews

The RAF’s Voyager aircraft can carry up to 111 tonnes (122 US tons) of fuel and is able to dispense a total of 110,231lb (50,000kg) of fuel to a number of aircraft. It can loiter for up to four hours at a range of over 1,151 miles (1,852km) from its departure point.