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UK studies accelerating Voyager's air-to-air refuelling mission

The long-distance operating demands of the NATO campaign in Libya have prompted the UK to consider accelerating the introduction of its Airbus A330 Voyager fleet's air-to-air refuelling (AAR) capability.

Under plans set out in the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme, the UK's first use of the Voyager fleet was to be focussed on air transport duties, before progressing to the delivery of full refuelling services estimated to begin in late 2014.

© Cobham Aviation Services
The first A330 to undergo modification as a tanker in the UK touched down in Bournemouth on 26 August

But with Royal Air Force Vickers VC10s currently being required to fly 10h sorties in support of the UK's Operation Ellamy activity over Libya - and also due to leave use from 2013 - consideration has been given to bringing the plan forward.

"We were starting to look at if the Libya operation had been continuing, to slightly re-jig the [crew] conversion programme to put a greater focus on to bringing air refuelling capability in as the first part," said Air Marshal Kevin Leeson, Chief of Materiel (Air).

"The efficient route is to get the aeroplane fully into the air transport role first, with our crews converted, and then bring AAR in afterwards. But we are poised to respond to however events go in the Libya campaign."

© Crown Copyright
Royal Air Force VC10s have been flying 10h missions in support of the Libya campaign

AirTanker consortium chief executive Phill Blundell said: "We've had discussions around trying to accelerate the air-to-air refuelling element, because of the constraints that they've had in Libya, which we can do.

"It's not a capability issue on the aircraft. When the Voyager gets accepted into service it'll be as a tanker, aero-medical evacuation and transport aircraft. The limitation on what we use the aircraft for is actually the training programme to familiarise the air crew."

AirTanker has already opened a training school for the Voyager at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, with the programme's first of 14 aircraft - one of two to have been converted in Spain by Airbus Military - due to enter use on 1 November. A simulator for the tanker/transport should arrive at the site in about 12 months time.

"We have made enormous steps over the three and a half years since the [private finance initiative] contract was signed," Blundell said during a delivery ceremony for the first A330-200-based Voyager to enter conversion at Cobham Aviation Services' Bournemouth airport site in Dorset, UK.

"This is anything but just a new aircraft programme. This is something very new, innovative and different in the development of the service," he said.

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