KC-46 Flies Without Co-Pilot as AMC Explores Limited Aircrew Operations

A KC-46 tanker from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., flew without a co-pilot Oct. 25, part of Air Mobility Command’s push to study limited aircrew operations.

Two flights took place with just a pilot and a boom operator, the 22nd Air Refueling Wing announced in a release. The first sortie flew a pattern only, while the second accomplished a “full mission profile,” including “takeoff, aerial refueling rendezvous, air refueling on-load, and offload, [and] landing.” 

When not engaged in boom operations, the boom operator was in the cockpit with the pilot.

A second instructor pilot was on board during the flights to act as a safety observer, and a second KC-46 with a full crew flew alongside the tanker to provide assistance if needed.

“This mission was practiced extensively in flight simulators,” 22nd ARW commander Col. Nate Vogel said in a statement. “Each phase of evaluation has been carefully considered, taking into account crew safety, aircraft capabilities, and existing federal aviation standards. That allowed us to make a deliberate and thorough analysis of what risks and hurdles are present, how to mitigate those, and allowed us to recommend training requirements to familiarize crews with the basic functions and critical controls of unfamiliar crew positions.”

The move to take a co-pilot out of the cockpit was one of several initiatives outlined by Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Mike Minihan at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference this past September. Reports of such a move first came to light in July, sparking pushback from some who felt it would strain an already undermanned force, but Minihan strongly defended it as necessary.

“You’ll have to forgive me. I don’t think fighter pilots are the only ones that have a birthright to fly an airplane solo,” Minihan said. “And as much as I admire and trust that crowd, I admire and trust mine in exactly the same way. 

“There’s a real operational need for it. In order to generate the tempo required to win, it’s not hard to imagine a pilot and a boom on the bunk sleeping with a pilot and a boom in seats, getting the mission done. And I’d rather test that out now than try to figure it out when the shooting is going on.”

The KC-46 might not be the only mobility aircraft to fly with a smaller crew. Minihan has said he also wants to explore limited aircrew operations for other major weapons platforms.

Minihan has pushed forward with several initiatives for the KC-46 in particular, though. In May, a Pegasus from the 22nd ARW set an AMC endurance record with a 24.2-hour flight, and in September, he cleared it for worldwide deployments and combatant commander taskings, including in combat, after months of interim capability releases due to the tanker’s troubled Remote Vision System.