Inside a KC-46 Refueling Flight

ABOARD A KC-46 FLYING ABOVE LAKE HURON—As the flight of four F-16s approaches the Air Force’s next-generation tanker, the boom operator presses a few buttons on a digital display in front of her and the jet’s boom system springs to life.

The large black-and-white screen, the focal point of years of frustration inside the Air Force and negotiations with Boeing, sharpens to a clear image. It shows the refueling boom lowering from the rear of the plane and beginning to move side to side and up and down, testing to ensure it is ready to offload about 5,000 pounds of fuel to each Viper. A familiar “fasten seatbelt” ding plays to passengers to announce the start of the refueling—a reminder that the KC-46, at its heart, is an airliner.

The KC-46 is the sole Pegasus playing in Air Mobility Command’s large-scale Mobility Guardian 2021 exercise, AMC’s premiere training event held every two years. This year’s iteration is focused on new ways of fighting and the development of new technology. Air Force Magazine attended the waning days of the exercise and is the first independent news organization to fly on a KC-46.

The tanker’s envelope has expanded to fuel more aircraft, and the May 25 morning is perfect for the RVS to show what capability it has.

“Got ’em in sight,” the boom operator says over the radio.

Buzz 21, the first of the four F-16s from the Ohio National Guard, pulls up behind the KC-46, call sign Fred 11. When the black-and-white view of the F-16 is clear through the jet’s 3D view, you can make out the hoses extending from pilot’s oxygen mask, as well as the patches on uniform sleeves, from the end of the boom.

However, even with the 3D goggles, depth perception is difficult. Moving the refueling boom around the F-16’s canopy to then line up with the receptacle, flying at 290 knots, is a delicate process. While wearing the goggles, the center of the screen is sharp, but when you look to the edge of the screen, it gets blurry and disorienting.

The camera feed does not accurately show the end of the boom—there’s about another foot and a half beyond what is visible on the screen, so boom operators use the shadows to gauge where the tip is before connecting to the receptacle. If there’s no shadow, on a cloudy day, for example, the operator has to rely on experience, rather than technology, to make the connection.

These photographs, shown during a presentation during the 2020 Airlift Tanker Association conference, shows problems with the KC-46’s troubled remote vision system in both shadows and direct sunlight and examples of “adequate” images during ideal settings. Photos from Air Mobility Command Powerpoint slide.

The weather above Lake Huron, after taking off from Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport—a former USAF base that closed in 1993 and has become a depot and maintenance facility for Kalitta Air—is ideal for showcasing the existing RVS capability that day. A high cloud ceiling prevents the direct-sunlight washout that has plagued the system—during an earlier sortie in the exercise, the screen washed out while a gigantic C-5 attempted to refuel. The only shadow darkening part of the screen comes when the KC-46 lines up directly between the sun and the receiver. That only happens a couple times as the tanker runs its tracks, but when it does, it makes depth perception a little more difficult.

A set of three screens above the main one shows a blurry, wide-angle view of the rear and side of the KC-46, highlighting the heat signature of the F-16 engines.

The first connection with Buzz 21 takes a couple tries, as the operator pulls the boom back several feet to avoid scraping the F-16. “Money,” the instructor says as the connection is made. Buzz 21 takes on its fuel and moves to the right side of the jet. Buzz 22 moves in from the left to take its turn for fuel.

With the ideal day-time conditions, the refueling was “pretty by the book,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Edsall, a boom operator with the 344th Air Refueling Squadron, who was the instructor on the flight. While the daytime can bring the issues with glare and shadows, the RVS system is best at night, he said.

Scenario of the Day

The F-16s are providing defensive counter air coverage to protect bases in the region from an advancing force, which for the exercise had contracted “Red Air” simulating Su-35s and Su-30s. It’s “Day 30” of the war, and the enemy is at about 75 percent capability, with simulated Sa-8 short-range air defense systems protecting its key locations across the border. Earlier in the exercise, aircrews focused on tactics for a high-end fight, including takeoffs in radio silence and the first KC-46 night vision landing. Even the jet’s call-sign, Fred 11, is a diversion during the exercise since Fred is a nickname for the C-5. KC-135s are going by Herk, KC-10s are going by Moose, in a small attempt to deceive a would-be enemy.

The tanker is flying a track over Lake Huron to refuel the F-16s, and a nearby KC-10 is refueling two A-10s as part of the exercise. Because of the “stiff boom” Category One deficiency on the KC-46, one of several remaining with the program, it can’t refuel the Warthogs because lighter and slower aircraft such as the A-10 have a difficult time disconnecting after refueling. During a pre-mission brief, planners said KC-135s and KC-10s would have to be on standby if A-10s needed fuel, because the KC-46 couldn’t help.

AMC on May 26 said the KC-46 can refuel F/A-18A-F and E/A-18Gs using its drogue without restrictions. The Pegasus can pass fuel, with varying restrictions, to B-52s, C-17s, F-15s, F-16s, F-35As, HC/MC-130Js, other KC-46s, E-3Gs, C-5Ms, RC/TC-135s, F-22s, and B-1Bs. In the coming months, the aircraft is projected to be able to receive limited aerial refueling certifications and clearances for CV/MV-22s, E-8s, B-2s, and P-8s.

The boom operator makes the connection with Buzz 22, Buzz 23, and Buzz 24 on the first try. Then with the operational refueling requirements of the day’s mission complete, the nearby KC-10 swings over and practices making connections with the KC-46. Each time the massive KC-10 connects, it feels like the smaller KC-46 is in a minor fender bender as passengers feel a slight push forward.

Boom operators Airman 1st Class Crissy Hall and Staff Sgt. Ryan Edsall, both with the 344th Air Refueling Squadron, operate a KC-46's refueling system during a May 25 flight.
Boom operators Airman 1st Class Crissy Hall and Staff Sgt. Ryan Edsall, both with the 344th Air Refueling Squadron, operate a KC-46’s refueling system during a May 25 flight. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Karla Parra.

Flying the KC-46

In the cockpit, the KC-46’s avionics and situational awareness show how advanced it is compared to the older KC-10s and KC-135s. The pilots have plugged the flight path into the jet’s navigation system, and it flies itself on a refueling track. Aside from the better air conditioning, this is one of the biggest upgrades after coming from a KC-135, said mission pilot Capt. Daniel Dixon, with the 344th Air Refueling Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas.

“It’s a lot smoother to fly,” Dixon said. “It flies itself a lot more. That allows us to focus on tactical data link and the bigger picture—the other threats to the aircraft—and pay attention to the flight at large rather than maintaining our air speed and bank angle and making sure that we stay within our airspace.”

The co-pilot on the mission changes one of the screens in front of her to a camera view of behind, showing the KC-10 connecting to the boom.

Another screen in front of the pilots displays the jet’s Tactical Situational Awareness System, bringing in information collected through line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight links displaying nearby jets and threats into an easily viewable display for the aircrew to know what’s around them. This is built in to the KC-46, while the KC-135 relies on a roll-on system for a similar capability, but those are only available in small numbers, are owned by Air Combat Command, and sit in the back of that plane instead of in front of the pilots. A key focus of Mobility Guardian was integrating the KC-46’s system with other Tactical Datalink Systems across the mobility fleet.

KC-46 Fixes

USAF officials have long said the situational awareness upgrade is a major focus of the KC-46 program, and pilots who have flown the jet told Air Force Magazine it is a huge upgrade, though they are taking small steps to move toward full capability.

The jet’s biggest and most famous issue is the set of cameras, screens, and sensors connecting the boom operators to the receiving aircraft. Boeing and the Air Force announced in 2020 that they had reached an agreement to overhaul the whole system with new cameras, displays, and sensors. The current black-and-white video feed will be replaced by a color 4K view. The boom will be affixed with a new actuator to alleviate the stiffness issue, which will allow the A-10s to be able to connect with the KC-46.

Included in the new “RVS 2.0” package will be a laser ranger for aircraft distance measurement and augmented reality to assist with the boom operations, which should address the problems of depth perception and accurately show the length of the boom itself.

New screens will replace the current ones in the boom operator position, which is reminiscent of a remotely piloted aircraft operator’s cockpit. The new screens and systems will actually move the entire position a few inches, causing a third seat used by instructors and guests to be shifted from the middle to the side.

Boeing will cover the cost of the new RVS system, which is in addition to the more than $5 billion in cost overruns that the company is responsible for.

RVS 2.0 is currently undergoing its preliminary design review, and AMC boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost told Air Force Magazine in an interview she has seen some of that work, and “our boom operators have seen that work, and they are pretty happy with what they see. So, I’m cautiously optimistic.”

As more boom operators have worked with the current system, they have become more confident in working around RVS issues. AMC now wants to open its envelope to more training sorties with combat aircraft. Air Combat Command leaders have flown on KC-46s and seen how it operates and have said “’OK, let’s do this with fourth-generation airplanes,’” Van Ovost said

The new system will start to be installed on delivered KC-46s in 2023, and it will be incorporated on the production line the following year. In the meantime, Boeing has also developed an interim RVS “1.5” using software upgrades to improve the system’s image quality. While the interim step is welcomed by the Air Force, service leaders have said the priority is the full 2.0 overhaul and 1.5 can’t change that timeline.

The tanker during the May 25 mission, tail number 76026 from McConnell, has the original RVS system. McConnell is the biggest operating base for the KC-46, with more than 100 aircrews trained and flying the jet. The base has sent their KC-46s on an around-the-world mission including a stop at the Dubai Air Show, and on training events in the Pacific and in Europe. Air Mobility Command will offer the KC-46 to U.S. Transportation Command for limited operations as soon as July.

KC-46 crews used the exercise’s operations tempo, and the small, towerless airfield, to practice flying in a combat environment. During the May 25 flight, the KC-46 did a “tactical arrival,” or a “teardrop” landing. This involved approaching the runway from the wrong direction and doing a sharp turn and climb to turn around and land quickly.

“Traditionally, tankers [fly] very wide patterns, come in and fly [a] very smooth, precise approach to land. We’re used to taking off and landing from the same field at Al Udeid [Air Base, Qatar] or Al Dhafra [Air Base, United Arab Emirates], which is very safe, controlled. And so there’s not a lot of threats nearby,” said Maj. Thomas Gorry, the chief of group training with the 22nd Operations Group at McConnell.

The KC-46 program brings together aircrew from different backgrounds. Gorry comes from a C-130, which regularly flies tactical approaches to austere airfields, so he wanted to bring that approach to the KC-46.

“When you’re thinking about that next fight, the airfield you’re landing and taking off from might not be as secure, so the tactical arrival is another piece to that puzzle that we’re not just good at yet,” he said, adding, “We just don’t know where we’re going to be landing next. It’s not going to be [Al Udeid], and it’s not going to be Dhafra.”