Airbus Tanker Jet’s Fuel-Boom Bug Confounds Australian Air Force

Airbus SAS has yet to resolve performance issues with its military refueling plane, more than two years after the first examples were delivered, according to the Royal Australian Air Force, the model’s lead customer.

The KC-30A tanker and troop transport has been on the Australian defense department’s Projects of Concern list since 2010 and is the “biggest priority at the moment,” Air Marshal Geoff Brown said in an interview in London.

“We still have got a quite a few issues with the tanker to work through,” Brown said. “Everybody thought that since we’ve been building refueling planes for 50-odd years, how hard can it be? But there are more complications.”

Australia ordered five tankers based on the A330 passenger plane in 2004 to act as airborne gas stations for combat and surveillance planes. Airbus delivered the first in 2011, around four years behind plan, and problems persist with gear including an electronically controlled boom that passes fuel far faster than the standard hose-based system.

“There is still a lot of work to be done on the boom,” Brown said. “It’s a brand new fly-by-wire system and we probably should have expected more issues.”

Airbus Military, the unit that’s developing the plane, said qualification trails with the apparatus are almost done and that the technology will gain certification around the year’s end, delivering a “robust boom capability.”

Tests took longer because Australia’s first tanker was due a maintenance check, and the delays are not directly related to an incident in January 2011 when a KC-30A boom broke off while refueling a Portuguese F-16 jet, Brown said. A second Airbus tanker lost its boom during trials about 20 months later.

Hose Headache

Australia in February approved the KC-30A for initial refueling operations using the hose-and-drogue system in which pods under each wing extend flexible tubes with baskets at the end into which the recipient plane inserts a probe to get fuel.

Introduction of the system made by Wimborne, England-based Cobham Plc was also slow because of problems with stabilizing the basket, hose rubbing and a lack of spares, Brown said.

Airbus said the RAAF had suffered a “lack of pod reliability” due to logistics issues which the company is addressing with suppliers. A pool of spares has also been set up, significantly improving availability in recent weeks, it said.

Brown said all refueling issues can resolved in the next year with “invigorated commitment by both ourselves and Airbus.”

Britain, which is acquiring A330-based refueling planes under a fee-for-service arrangement, has also had hose-and-drogue issues, suffering excessive fuel flows.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have the tanker and India is in talks to take the system.

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