NKAWTG-Nobody Kicks A** Without Tanker Gas. A credo that you will often hear in the tanker community; and they aren’t wrong. Offensive airpower is vital to any operation, but in order to put bombs on target, you have to get there first. Modern combat aircraft will always carry external fuel tanks, extending their time on station and also, getting them home. That doesn’t happen with air-to-air refuelling.
Aerial refuelling dates all the way back to the early 1920s, where two Airco DH-4 biplanes accomplished the first air-to-air refuelling, by trailing a hose from a hand-held fuel tank, to the receiver aircraft. After that, distance records were being set using aerial refuelling, which also benefitted mail deliver services. 1949 saw the first circumvention of an aircraft around the world, which was achieved by a B-50 Super Fortress, by conducting four aerial refuellings, proving that distance and geographical barriers were no longer an obstacle to military air power. The Korean war saw the first use of aerial refuelling in a combat situation, involving F-84s flying from Japanese airfields, after many South Korean bases were overrun by the North. Since then, aerial tankers have been a vital part of military operations, from aircraft transits to refuelling near combat zones.
Not many people get to see air-to-air refuelling, especially from inside the tanker. I was fortunate to be on two tanker missions, during Maple Flag 49 and 50. The aircraft I flew on was the CC-130H(T) Hercules, from 435 “Cinthe” Squadron in Winnipeg. The Hercules uses two refuelling pods, one under each wing, which trails a hose and basket in which receiver aircraft can plug in a refuelling probe. Both trips saw the Hercules tank flights of CF-18 Hornets, playing as Red Air assets, during each mission. The first flight would be nearly a three hour flight, which consisted of a half hour transit to our operating area, about an hour and a half on station, and a half hour transit back to Cold Lake. Aerial refuelling can seem a bit benign, as the tanker flies in circles, following a pre-planned track, waiting for the receiver aircraft. But when the fighters show up, things get serious pretty quick.
The CC-130 can transfer fuel in two ways. It can offload part of its own internal fuel, or it can transfer fuel from a removable stainless steel tank, which carries over 13,000 liters of fuel. This tank is carried internally and can be removed when not needed. It should also be mentioned that the tank takes up a lot of room, and not a lot of room to squeeze by it. Under each wing is an AAR pod, which houses the hose and drogue for the actual transfer of fuel. The whole pod is powered internally, using a propeller-driven generator on the front of the pod. Deployment of the hoses are the responsibility of loadmasters, in the back of the aircraft. They also observe the receiver aircraft, relaying the positions of each receiver to the pilots. Typically, each aircraft will join the Hercules on the left wing, with their refuelling probes extended. Once the aircraft have been cleared to plug in, aircraft will position themselves behind one of the two hoses, in a pre-contact position. Once stabilized, the receiver aircraft will be cleared to plug into the hose and receiver fuel. During the time on the hose, the pilot of the fighter will constantly check their references on the Hercules, in order to maintain a proper distance. Once the fuel offload is complete, the aircraft move to the right side of the tanker, as the next aircraft cycle onto the hoses. Once all of the aircraft have received their fuel, they will be cleared off from the tanker, and the hoses are retracted into the wing pods. From there, it’s a waiting game, flying in circles, until the fighters return for a top-up, before returning to base.
Tankers are what is known as a High Value Target, being sought out by enemy aircraft, so as to take out the ability for friendly forces to receive much needed fuel. As such, fighters are always nearby to ensure the safety of the tanker. Even then, an enemy aircraft will try to get close enough to the tanker, in order to shoot it down. One my second tanker flight, we were warned of a simulated Mig-21, stalking our aircraft, before being turned away by friendly fighters. Tankers are normally kept as far away from the combat areas, but the crews must still be vigilant of potential threats. As such, the Hercules carries radar warning receiver gear to detect threats, and flares to decoy potential missiles fired by the aircraft. But in the end, we were able to make it back to Cold Lake without being fired upon.
In addition to the Hercules, the RCAF also employs the CC-150 Polaris as a strategic tanker. The Polaris is a military version of the Airbus A310 and flown by 437 “Husky” squadron, based at 8 Wing Trenton, On. 437 operates five Polaris aircraft, two of which have been converted for air-to-air refuelling. The two CC-150s were converted to tankers in 2008, thus giving the RCAF the strategic tanker capability that was lost with the retirement of the CC-137. Being a strategic tanker, the Polaris can support overseas deployments of its CF-18s, where the Hercules is limited, due to it being used more as a tactical tanker. The Polaris is capable of offloading 80,000 pounds of fuel to the Hornets at any given time, ensuring that the Hornets don’t have to land for fuel, which can be problematic during transits over oceans. Notable support missions by the Polaris were deployments to Libya and Iraq, where the crews not only refuelled RCAF Hornets, but other coalition aircraft. In 2020, the Polaris was tasked with supporting NORAD operations, which include supporting CF-18s in northern Arctic operations where Hornets and other NORAD aircraft monitor incursions into Canadian and American airspace. Up until this, those operations were supported by the CC-130.
Very soon, the Hercules fleet will be retired, leaving air-to-air refuelling capability solely with the Polaris. 435 Squadron located at 17 Wing Winnipeg, will eventually transition to the new CC-295 Kingfisher and assume a pure Search and Rescue role. It should be noted that 435 Squadron is the only Hercules unit to operate the CC-130 in the tanker role, with five aircraft converted for that purpose. The Polaris will also have to be retired and replaced at some point in the future, leaving the Canadian Government to eventually pick a successor. Currently, there are a few options available, such as the American KC-46 Pegasus, which is based on the 767, and the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport. The KC-46 has just entered service with the US Air Force and the A330 MMRT has entered service with the United Kingdom, Australia, and Saudi Arabia. So far, twelve nations have ordered the A330 MMRT for a total of 60 aircraft.
The art of aerial refuelling will always have a place in military operations, for many decades to come, meaning tactical aircraft will continue to kick a** with tanker gas.