The UK Royal Air Force's ability to deliver air transport and in-flight refuelling services ventured into a new era on 10 April 2012, when a military-adapted version of the Airbus A330 took off from Brize Norton air base in Oxfordshire to perform its first operational flight.
Twelve months on, and a three-strong fleet of renamed Voyagers have transported more than 30,000 passengers and around 2,300t of freight, as the RAF's 10 Sqn and the AirTanker Services company responsible for introducing an eventual 14 of the type continue to expand their capabilities.
Comprising two aircraft placed on the UK military register as ZZ330 and ZZ331, and commercially registered G-VYGG, the trio had flown almost a combined 1,900h and 543 sectors by late March, AirTanker says. Typical duties have included flying military personnel to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and Al Minhad air base in the United Arab Emirates in support of the UK's involvement in Afghanistan, as well as deployments linked to British exercises conducted in Canada and Kenya.
"Now the aircraft are here we are into the usual drumbeat of tasking, and the level of tasking is increasing all the time," says James Scott, AirTanker's director of flight operations. With the Voyagers expected to log around 520 flight hours during April, he adds: "We are starting to take our rightful place in the delivery of air transport capability for the air force."
The active fleet is due to double in size soon, with three more aircraft scheduled to arrive at Brize Norton by the middle of 2013. This number will increase to total seven or eight by the end of the year, while the programme's ninth A330 is already on Airbus's final assembly line in Toulouse, France.
All flights to date have been made in the passenger transport role, either under AirTanker's air operating certificate with civilian pilots, or flown by the air force's 10 Sqn under military regulations. But in what will be a major milestone, the Ministry of Defence is expected soon to also give release to service approval for the type to begin supporting air-to-air refuelling (AAR) training tasks, leading to its delivery of a critical operational service.
Being introduced via the UK's Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme using a private finance initiative funding model, the Voyagers are to replace the Vickers VC10 and Lockheed TriStar in RAF service.
Now used in a tanker-only role by 101 Sqn, the UK's VC10 force is less than five months away from its final retirement in late September. The 1960s-era fleet was in mid-March reduced to four aircraft, with the withdrawal of two airframes. A mixed fleet of TriStar transports and tankers flown by 216 Sqn are due to follow the VC10s into retirement by March 2014.
At full strength, the Voyager fleet will include a core inventory of nine tanker/transports, with these to be declared fully in-service with the operational provision of air-to-air refuelling services by May 2014. A second operational unit will follow 10 Sqn in flying the type, with a decision yet to be announced on whether it will take its number from either the current VC10 or TriStar-equipped squadrons.
Also to be supplied by AirTanker is a so-called "surge fleet" to comprise five additional aircraft, including the current G-VYGG. These will be kept at short-notice readiness to support UK military operations if required, but ordinarily made available for third-party use.
"Those aircraft are going to be there for us to use," says Scott. "We are exploring actively several business scenarios on how we can use that capability."
The tanker/transports will be operated by 30 RAF and seven sponsored reservist crews of two pilots each, plus 37 mission system operators, who will specialise in tasks including air-to-air refuelling provision.
Scott says AirTanker has been "hugely impressed" by the standard of the candidates who have applied to become sponsored reservist pilots. Around 10 have been recruited so far, including five as instructors, and the first two graduated from officer training at RAF Cranwell in December 2012 as Flight Lieutenants.
"We have been able to pick people who fit in with our values, and with those of the RAF," he says. "If I'm going to move crews between operations then it's imperative they are as close together as possible. I've not seen any challenges with the people I've got with moving into each environment," he adds, referring to a structure where AirTanker pilots could fly a commercial Voyager one week, and then report in RAF uniform as sponsored reservists for another task.
Another successful aspect of AirTanker's airline operation, meanwhile, has been the level of interest received to work as cabin crew. Some 800 applications were received for the first 30 available positions, which increased to 1,400 for the total 48 jobs available.
"We are getting great feedback from passengers on the quality of our service. Part of our strategy is to make ourselves so attractive that the customer wants to fly the aircraft."
While noting that a joint military and civilian operations team is demonstrating "a slick dispatch service", Scott says AirTanker is using all the information at its disposal to analyse the cause of any delays during its operations. "If an aircraft is 1min late I want to know why," he says. Similar attention is being paid to the Voyager's fuel consumption statistics in the air transport role, in which its under-wing hose-and-drogue refuelling pods are removed, to reduce drag. "We are learning to fly as efficiently as possible. As a tanker, all the fuel we save can be given to receiver aircraft," he notes.
The modified A330s will represent the RAF's only tanker capability from early next year, after a recent MoD study concluded that "Voyager will meet all requirements". This removed any consideration of a secondary role for the service's 22 Airbus Military A400M tactical transports, the first of which will be delivered in September 2014.
Three RAF crews have already passed through instruction in tanker operations for the Voyager at a dedicated training school at Brize Norton, with their ground-based training having culminated with the use of a Thales RealitySeven full-flight simulator. These first crews will begin supporting RAF fast jets - initially Panavia Tornado GR4s, but later Eurofighter Typhoons and also from late this decade Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters - soon after the expected receipt of a remaining clearance for the Voyager to transfer fuel in flight. "We are hungry to get on with delivering AAR," Scott says.
As air-to-air training tasks commence, a modification programme will also be launched during May to enable Voyagers to play an important part in assisting with the UK's troop drawdown process in Afghanistan ahead of it ending its combat involvement by late 2014. AirTanker's engineering team at Brize Norton will make the required defensive aid system enhancements to enable the transport to be flown into the country, with the MoD's theatre entry standard having grown beyond the equipment fit included in the FSTA contract.
"Who else gets to start an airline that's properly funded, and with widebody aircraft?" Scott asks. "But the other piece is our ability to facilitate the RAF's delivery of military effect."