Before the end of this year, a Belgian Air Force aircraft will be able to refuel other combat aircraft in the air. Belgium, together with the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, the Czech Republic and Norway, is investing in nine multi-role aircraft. With the arrival of the Airbus A330 MRTT, an independent European defence is a small step closer.
The Airbus A330 MRTT is the military variant of the commercial A330 aircraft. But the aircraft can do much more. MRTT stands for “Multi-Role Tanker Transport”. “It can be used as a refuelling device, for troop transport and/or cargo transport,” says Belgian pilot lieutenant-colonel Kurt Deprez.
Together, the six countries manage a fleet of nine refuelling and transport aircraft, of which the first two have been delivered. Belgium invested €258 million in the MRTT project and is entitled to 1000 hours of use, or around 10% of the total. It can also claim 10% of the personnel. This is why there will eventually be eight Belgian crew on Dutch soil.
The planes are based at Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the country where they are registered. But the peculiarity of the unit is that no country really owns any plane. Despite the Dutch registration, it was NATO that bought them, integrates them into its MMU (Multinational Multirole Unit) and lends them to each state according to their financial quota. Because each country works via a pooling system, it can also have several aircraft at the same time if necessary, for example when many fellow countrymen suddenly had to be evacuated.
Combat aircraft have a relatively limited range, depending on armament and speed, of several thousand kilometres. Landing and taking off each time to refuel is often too cumbersome, or sometimes simply not possible, for example over enemy territory or over the sea. At that moment the air tanker comes into action.
The A330 MRTT acts as a “flying filling station”. “Refuelling in the air takes place at more than 3,000 litres per minute,” says technician warrant officer Patrick. “There are two options for refuelling: via an extendable“ boom ”, or via fuel hoses. Refuelling is slower through hoses.” Patrick is one of the two Belgians who has been trained to operate the new refuelling systems.
Various European and NATO types of combat aircraft can come to refuel. The A330 MRTT refuelling system is compatible with the F-16, F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, F/A-18, Tornado or A400M, among others.
The equipment for refuelling is incorporated in the tail (boom) and in the wings (hoses) of the aircraft. Refuelling will be almost fully automatic in the future via a system of cameras and radars. “Actually we do in this aircraft with three crew members, what we used to do with five or six,” says Patrick.
A single plane can carry 267 passengers, 45 tonnes of freight and 110 tonnes of fuel, without changing the configuration. Because the kerosene that is used during in-flight refuelling comes directly from the aircraft’s tanks, there are no additional tanks or manipulations to be carried out. Only the medical evacuation configuration requires cabin accommodation. Three of the nine aeroplanes will be dedicated to this function and stationed in Cologne rather than Eindhoven.
Source: VRT NWS (Jens Franssen) & RTBF (Jean-Christophe Willems)
Follow this link for an illustrated report provided by Belgian Defence