The US Air Force (USAF) has carried out a Boeing KC-46A Pegasus air refuelling mission with a crew of just two for the first time to validate procedures for operating with a limited aircrew in combat.
This allows the KC-46 to complete its mission with just a pilot and a boom operator when needed to rapidly launch aircraft with incoming threats or extend long-range operations with offset crews. “In wartime, airfields are static targets, as are any aircraft on the airfield when an attack is inbound,” said Col Nate Vogel, commander of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, based at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. “But once airborne, the aircraft is a mobile platform capable of manoeuvre and continuing to provide mission capability for the combatant commander.”
The mission was executed inside military test airspace and included two KC-46 sorties with a reduced crew. The first sortie flew the pattern only, followed by a debrief and assessment. The second sortie immediately followed and accomplished a full mission profile including ground operations; pre-flight tasks; take off; aerial refuelling rendezvous; air refuelling on-load and offload; landing; and debrief.
The boom operator was co-located in the cockpit with the pilot, except when performing boom operations, and a second instructor pilot was aboard throughout the entire mission to serve as a safety observer. The KC-46’s basic crew complement is a pilot, a co-pilot, and a boom operator, with additional aircrew added for long-duration flights. A second KC-46 with a full crew complement of subject matter experts accompanied the first aircraft to provide assistance by radio, if needed.
“This mission was practiced extensively in-flight simulators,” Vogel said. “Each phase of evaluation has been carefully considered, taking into account crew safety, aircraft capabilities, and existing federal aviation standards. That allowed us to make a deliberate and thorough analysis of what risks and hurdles are present, how to mitigate those, and allowed us to recommend training requirements to familiarise crews with the basic functions and critical controls of unfamiliar crew positions.”