Airbus has just completed its first successful air-to-air refueling test. When flying long distances, airplanes often need to refuel. This is particularly true in the case of military airplanes, some of which fly multiple consecutive missions before landing. Also known as in-flight refueling or midair refueling, air-to-air refueling is designed to refuel military airplanes using a tanker.
It appears that Airbus wants to enter the air-to-air refueling market. Earlier this year, the European aerospace manufacturing company successfully tested an automatic boom-based air-to-air refueling system at an undisclosed location. According to Airbus, the test involved a tanker airplane and an F-16 jet. The series of tests marked the first time that Airbus had performed air-to-air refueling.
Of course, there are several existing air-to-air refueling systems currently available. As a result, you might be wondering what makes Airbus’s new system different. Well, Airbus says its air-to-air refueling system is fully automatic — something that can’t be said for existing air-to-air refueling systems. With Airbus’s system, the tanker pilot doesn’t have to perform any manual work. All he or she must do is monitor the boom while ensuring that it connects to the receiving airplane.
During an air-to-air refueling mission, the tanker pilot must guide the boom to the receiving airplane. This requires flying at a similar altitude, as well as speed, as the receiving airplane. As the boom approaches the receiving airplane, it will automatically extend a beam that connects to the receiving. Once connected, the beam will release fuel into the receiving airplane. The tanker airplane can then break away from the receiving airplane.
When speaking about the company’s recent test, Airbus said that its air-to-air refueling system is designed to align automatically with the receiving airplane. “Once the system is activated by the ARO, the A3R flies the boom automatically and keeps the alignment between the boom tip and the receiver receptacle with an accuracy of a couple of centimeters,” explained Airbus in a press release.
There are two primary types of air-to-air refueling systems: boom systems and probe-and-drogue systems. Airbus has developed a boom air-to-air refueling system, but it’s designed with an emphasis on automation. It still uses a boom to connect to the receiving airplane. The difference, however, is that Airbus’s new system works automatically. It features sensors that automatically align itself with the receiving airplane, meaning the pilot has less work to perform during refueling missions.