The concept of commercially outsourcing inflight refuelling is finally set to get off the ground with the US Navy (USN) awarding the first such contract to Flight International Inc and partner Omega Air. The Royal Air Force, in the meantime, has opened negotiations with up to four shortlisted contenders for its proposed privately funded Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) requirement.

Virginia-based Flight International is to be awarded an initial contract for commercial air refuelling covering the remaining nine months of this US fiscal year (to October 2001). It is subcontracting Omega, in turn, to supply its two-point probe-and-drogue-equipped tanker, the multi-purpose Boeing 707-320. The company is expected to receive a follow-on contract for next year, renewable for up to five years.

The contract covers support for target towing, electronic warfare training, air intercept control, ferry and for utility missions to supplement aerial refuelling performed by the US Air Force (USAF) on behalf of the USN.

"This is available for anyone who needs air refuelling and we can do it at half the price by using best commercial practices. We're talking to the USAF and have done a survey of where we might fit in." says Ulick McEvaddy a director at Omega Air. The company is to consider adding a modified Douglas KDC-10-40 to the programme.

Omega acquired 20 Pratt & Whitney JT-9D-powered DC-10s from Japan Airlines and has so far converted three to freighters for Challenge Air Cargo. Two options were dropped following UPS' take-over of the carrier and one of these will be converted to a tanker equipped with a redundant centre line hose drum unit.

The USN contract has been nominally valued at $6.6 million based on a projected utilisation of 600h over the remainder of the year.

After several months of delay, the UK has issued its four short-listed FSTA contenders with invitations to negotiate. Speculation has linked Rolls-Royce with a reversal of its earlier decision to bid its own Air Reach proposal and it has rejoined the Eurotanker consortium. It is offering a Rolls-Royce Trent 700-powered A330.

Other contenders include BAE teamed with Raytheon, proposing the A310, and the Serco/Spectrum Capital venture offering ex-British Airways 767s.

A final decision on whether to go ahead with a Private Finance Initiative deal is expected next year. In the meantime the contenders have been asked to provide fully costed bids for a contract which would run for 25 years and be worth around £9 billion ($13 billion).

Source: Flight International