In the run-up of and during the execution of exercise Pitch Black 2022, hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), aerial refuelling capabilities of air forces are taking a centre stage. Tanker aircraft are absolutely critical assets to sustain military air operations, especially in an environment like the Indo-Pacific. Split up between RAAF bases Darwin and Amberley, a total of six nations – Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany as part of the Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport Unit (MMU), France, South Korea and Singapore – are operating the A330 MRTT as their principal tanker. They form part of more than 100 aircraft from 17 nations currently deployed to Australia for Pitch Black. Never before, under participation of the MMU, have so many A330 MRTT been employed in a military exercise of that scale.
Thursday, 7:15 am in the German compound at RAAF Darwin on week one of the exercise. Between containers established for Pitch Black on a bench, far from the normal office set up back home, mission commander Maj. Daniel D., an A330 MRTT aircraft commander of the MMU, commences the briefing with his fellow crew members for today’s mission.
With him are co-pilots Capt. Benedikt V.A. and Capt. Kai B. as well as Air Refuelling Operators and Loadmasters SMSgt Jörg S. and SMSgt Christoph S.
Take off is scheduled in two hours, 9:15 am local time, in order to support a four-ship of Eurofighter jets from the German Air Force Tactical Air Wing 74 who are training with Japanese F-2 aircraft this morning. The tanking business is clockwork.
Maj. Daniel D. and his co-pilot Capt. Benedikt V.A. define 9:30 am as the latest take-off slot in order to be “on station” in time for the Eurofighter jets.
“We always aim to be in the area 15 minutes before the scheduled refuelling time in order to test all our systems such as the functionality of the hose and drogue”, says Capt. Benedikt V.A.
Today, the A330 MRTT will be “on station” for a bit less than two hours, from 9:50 am to 11:15 am, in an area described as Darwin area North low.
Area North low means the A330 MRTT will be operating no higher than 23.000 feet above ground during the mission and the aerial refuelling process.
Today, the altimeter will record 20,000 feet and at the end of the mission the A330 MRTT will require a total of 35.3 tonnes of fuel, says Maj. Daniel D. The A330 MRTT is fueled up with 60 tons in total today.
During the refuelling process, says Air Refuelling Operator Jörg S., the German Eurofighters can be in a speed range of 265 to 325 knots. Their preferred altitude block for aerial refuelling, he adds, is between 20,000 and 35,000 feet. This morning, the altitude for the refuelling is set for 20,000 feet.
One of the parameters the tanker pilots look out for are alternative bases to approach in case a return to RAAF Darwin should not be possible. The alternatives are RAAF Tindal or Curtain airport.
Another aspect that the crew discusses up front are procedures between the A330 MRTT and the Eurofighters in case of a failed refuelling process.
“In that case”, says Jörg S., “I will call for ‘Break Away, Break Away, Break Away’ three times which would signal to the jets to proceed into echelon formation. If more vertical separation is needed I will call you with ‘Clear to Climb’.”
In the end, no emergency procedures will have to be employed, the mission is performed flawlessly. However, the in-depth briefing and exchange of procedures is a testament to the rigorous safety standards the crews adhere to. “Safety first” is rule number one.
Pitch Black offers unique opportunities for the A330 MRTT crews to train in an environment very different and far away from the European theatre, explains 1Lt. Martin Gesenhoff, DSO and Public Affairs Officer for the MMU at Pitch Black.
“For the MMU, this exercise enables our crews to use the deployment for important training to gain desired experience in a fascinating and challenging environment. As such it fits our crew planning perfectly well and serves them as a unique opportunity”, says 1Lt. Gesenhoff.
During the exercise, a wide variety of “receivers” are in action, ranging from F-16s, F15s, Eurofighter Typhoon jets, Rafales, F-2s, F-35s, F-18s to SU-30s.
A330 MRTT from the various customer nations have previously refuelled each type of the jets. Clearly, the A330 MMU and its crews, based in both Eindhoven and Cologne, are ready and able to perform this job, too, as the near perfect execution of the deployment of the Luftwaffe Eurofighter contingent over 13,000 kilometres from Germany to Australia in August underlined.
About the A330 MMU:
With the arrival of the new Airbus A330 MRTT Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft between 2020 and 2024, the Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport Unit has been taking over extensive air transport and air-to-air refuelling tasks for its participating nations.
The MMF programme (Multinational MRTT Fleet) includes six European countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Norway and the Czech Republic.
The acquisition of the nine A330 MRTTs was carried out by the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), under the aegis of the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA). The NSPA is also responsible for the management of the fleet on behalf of the participating nations.
Five of the nine aircraft will be based permanently at Eindhoven and the remaining four at Cologne-Bonn Airport. Aircraft and crews will be available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for air refuelling and air transport missions including Strategic Aeromedical Evacuation.
Operations of the Airbus A330 MRTT Multi Role Tanker Transport fleet are coordinated by the European Air Transport Command (EATC European Air Transport Command), located as well in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
See also Pitch Black 2022 previous stories: