Airbus announced its revolutionary achievement on 17 April 2020. Airbus has successfully conducted a first-ever fully automatic air-to-air aircraft refuelling (A3R) operation with a boom system.
The test involved an Airbus tanker test aircraft acting as the fuel provider. The tanker aircraft is equipped with the Airbus A3R solution. An F16 fighter aircraft belonging to the Portuguese Air Force acted as the receiver.
Airbus conducted the tests on unspecified dates earlier in the year and over the Atlantic. The test campaign consisted of "45 flight test hours and 120 dry contacts with the A3R system". The A3R certification phase is scheduled to start next year.
This milestone is part of the testing carried out for the industrialization of A3R systems. Airbus plans to implement this system in its A330 MRTT(Multi-Role Tanker Transport). Additionally, it is purported to be an aerial-refuelling tanker aircraft and it is based on the civilian Airbus A330. The MRTT can act as a transport aircraft and a refuelling aircraft.
Airbus automatic air-to-air refuelling A3R system has the following benefits:
- It requires no additional equipment other than a receptacle on the receiver aircraft
- Reduces the workload of the ARO (air refuelling operator). ARO will just have to monitor the refuelling process.
- Increases the safety of the operation
- Makes air-to-air refuelling more efficient in operational conditions.
This is how the A3R system is expected to operate
The ARO will activate the system. The system takes care of the boom and flies it automatically, keeping a proper angle of alignment between the boom tip and the receiver aircraft's receptacle. Once stability is achieved and safety ensured, the telescopic beam is extended to make the connection with the receiver. Moreover, this is followed by fuel-transfer.
Once the tank is filled up, the disconnection process is activated, the telescopic beam retracts. Lastly, the boom is flown back to the Airbus MRTT aircraft again maintaining a safe distance between the two aircraft.
According to Didier Plantecoste, Airbus Head of Tanker and Derivatives Programmes, "The [A330 MRRT] tanker is the world’s reference for present and future refuelling operations." Given the necessity for refuelling fighter jets, many countries have ordered for the coveted Airbus 330 tanker aircraft.