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The next generation: The RAF KC2/3 Voyager

I have added little snippets of news about the RAF Voyager in the past, seeing as it was part of the VC10's story in a sense, especially as it related to the drawdown of the VC10 fleet. A recent experience made me search for a place to post some impressions and photos...so here goes.

The RAF Voyager fleet

The outcome of the RAF's Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft program was the 2007 decision to replace their VC10 and Tristar tankers with a fleet of Airbus A330 MRTT airframes, owned by the AirTanker, now Air Tanker Limited (ATL), consortium. Under this contract ATL supplies the RAF Squadrons with a core fleet of nine Voyager airframes, while keeping five airframes in a 'surge' fleet. These additional airframes have the fittings to be fully equipped as a KC2 tanker/transport, but are normally either leased to a civil operator or to a partner nation in a military capability.

The RAF's 10 and 101 Squadrons operate the Voyager tankers, with two distinct variants in the core fleet:

  • The Airbus KC2 Voyager is a two-point tanker using Cobham 905E underwing refuelling pods.
  • The Airbus KC3 Voyager is a three-point tanker that has a Cobham 805E centreline refuelling unit as well as the two underwing pods.

The Voyagers do not use any additional tanks in the fuselage such as on the VC10 K2 and K3 tankers, leaving the cabin and underfloor holds available to carry passengers and/or cargo. The KC3 most likely has a bit less cargo space available as the fuselage mounted refuelling unit takes up some space. One Voyager (ZZ336, named 'Vespina') has a VIP fit in the cabin and is painted in a special colourscheme. It is mostly used for AAR duties but covers special tasks carrying high-ranking cabinet members or the King and Queen when needed.

The first training flights on the RAF Voyager started in April 2012 with certification granted in May 2013. By May 2014 all the nine airframes in the core fleet had been delivered to ATL.

Technical specs

Powerplant two 71,100lb st (316kN) Rolls-Royce Trent 772B turbofans
Length 192ft 11¾in (58.82m)
Height 57ft ½in (17.39m)
Wingspan 197ft 10in (60.30m)
Wing area 3,892.20sqft (361.60m2)
Maximum speed around Mach 0.86
Typical mission range capable of delivering around 132,000lb (60,000kg) of fuel during five hours on station at 500nm (930km) from base
Range with maximum payload 4,500nm (8,334km)
Maximum range with maximum fuel 8,000nm (14,816km)
Maximum altitude 41,000ft
Maximum fuel load 245,000lb (111,000kg)
Maximum payload around 99,000lb (45,000kg)
Maximum passenger load 291

Source: RAF Voyager page

It is interesting to look at these figures and compare them to the VC10 tankers that they replaced. The Voyager is in a somewhat different class as the most capable VC10 tanker variant (the K3) carried 83,361 kg of JET A fuel, but used significantly more of that to keep itself in the air. At FL300 a Super VC10 could use some 7000 kg/hr depending on temperature and weight while the significantly larger A330 uses 6,100 kg/hr at heavy weights, going down to 5,400 kg/hr as fuel is burned off or given away. Having 111,000 kg available and burning that off at 6,100 kg/hr after deducting some 15,000 kg for take off and climb means that you can fly for five hours and still have 65,500 of fuel to give away, which would in itself be a significant fuel load for a VC10.

Flying on a Voyager


Boarding Voyager ZZ336 on a misty morning in Oxfordshire.

In May 2024 I got the opportunity to go along on a Voyager AAR mission from RAF Brize Norton. I have several stories on my website from people who were lucky enough to fly on a VC10 during an AAR mission but with the VC10s safely on the ground and staying there, this was certainly the next best thing. There was of course the question of whether the trip would take place, as operational constraints, changes in tasking or other factors may throw a spanner in the works, but everything came together and saw me at the main gate to the base at a rather early hour for a 6:45am check in. This takes place in Brize's terminal building and is not all that different from what you go through at every major airport these days, although there are some interesting differences.

A RAF bus took us to our aircraft as the single stand outside the terminal was in use for another transport flight. Parked on a remote stand on the Brize platform was KC2 Voyager ZZ336, named 'Vespina' (although the RAF does not appear to use the name at all) and resplendent in the special 'government' colourscheme. With its VIP interior this airframe is a bit limited in the tasking it can take on as it cannot carry a full load of 291 passengers. Because of this, it is probably mostly used for UK towline sorties as that keeps it within UK airspace and the limits imposed by its special interior do not matter.

The rear cabin of the Voyager is no different from any A330 airliner although seeing the cabin crew in RAF flight suits does remind you of the fact that you are on a military aircraft. As there were only 18 passengers, almost everybody got a window seat which bode well for the viewing opportunities later on. Driving down to the RAF base there had been some fog between the Cotswold hills and the view from the Voyager seat showed a line of grey A400Ms fading into that same mist. There was enough visibility for the take off though, well above the RAF limits, a suitable alternate in case of trouble after take off and a forecast for that fog to have burned off by the time we would return. So after a quick start-up and taxi out with a standard briefing from the cabin crew we took off at 8:30am into a gloomy grey sky, popping out of those clouds only minutes later to see a sunny blue sky. It took 30 to 35 minutes of flying to get to the assigned refuelling area off the Norfolk coast and our assigned altitude of FL160. The warning that interesting things might be happening soon was the sight of a refuelling hose being deployed outside the window.


Camera at the ready, a cup of tea at the ready...

Forget the fuelling plan, this is the important list during a long mission... tea and coffee orders.

The crew shared some details of the expected trade with us at the start of the flight and first to show up were a pair of F-35s from RAF Marham. After taking up a position just off the left wingtip they were cleared in to the refuelling hoses. They quickly established contact and spent the next five minutes sitting there off the side of the tanker happily taking on a couple of tons of fuel each. The main purpose of the visitors on this day was retaining currency in AAR operations but refuelling fighters comes with the additional benefit of more training time in the air and fewer take-offs and landings at their base.

Once I had seen the process a couple of times I was reminded of the basics of AAR operations, which was later confirmed and expanded upon by the Voyager's aircraft commander. The fighters approach at an altitude 1000 feet below that of the tanker until they establish visual contact with the tanker. They can then convert the excess speed that they used to catch up with the tanker into a bit of altitude to end up alongside the A330's left wingtip. The refuelling coordinator on the flight deck, who can keep track of the various aircraft around the tanker with several cameras displayed on the screens in front of him, clears the fighters to the right or left hose and keeps track of fuel offloaded, the time spent doing this and a number of other details. After receiving the allocated load of fuel, a fighter will move back to disconnect from the hose and transfer to a position on the right wingtip, awaiting the rest of the formation. Once all the fighters in that formation have refuelled and are in formation off the right wingtip, the are cleared away from the tanker and they will then climb another 1000 feet to clear the tanker, accellerating away from it in the process.

The weather over the North Sea included some low cumulus clouds and patches of stratus low over the sea but mostly clear skies so that for a lot of the flight the fighters were clearly seen against the blue of the sea, sometimes dotted with wind turbines. The A330 stayed inside a designated area, flying an elongated holding pattern in a roughly east-west direction. Because of this, the fighters were brightly illuminated by the morning sun on one side of the track, and partially backlit against it on the other half, both situations offering their own fantastic photo opportunities. During a turn a refuelling fighter on the left side appeared to move down relative to the tanker (not completely incorrect... but the difference in indicated altitude is negligable) and this provided some lovely images against the backdrop of the North Sea wind farms.

The crew looked after us very well, supplying tea, coffee and a hot breakfast to keep us going. There were regular messages from the flight deck announcing some breaks in the programme as the tanker remained on station without any fighters to supply, or announcing that a new set of customers was on the way. Once the first two waves of F-35s had finished their job, some Coningsby based Typhoons took over with up to three of them joining us at a time. Three Marham based F-35s formed the last wave of customers.

Air-to-air refuelling is seen by a lot of crews as 'the sport of kings' and they appear to be well-versed in this sport. The time needed to move into position and set up a succesful 'prod' was minimal for the visitors we encountered. Any aircraft displaces the air around it and the movement of the refuelling basket is influenced by this, something most clearly seen on the F-35 as what looks like an invisible bow wave sometimes appeared to push the basket away. Pilots try not to chase this basket but use references on the tanker to get themselves in the correct position. It takes training to get good at this sport and to keep yourself at the required level. What was on offer today was a very stable tanker in brightly lit conditions. I imagine the situation will be different when operational pressures, night, clouds, turbulence and other distractors can throw a spanner in the works.

Having refuelled fourteen fighters (some of which had come back for seconds) in the space of just over three hours, having supplied almost 36,000 kg of fuel during the nine or ten loops around the racetrack pattern, it was time to reel in the refuelling hoses and return to Brize. The slightly longer return flight transited across the East Midlands, turned south towards Cheltenham and looped around Brize to land back on runway 25 after four and a half hours in the air. Procedures post-flight were some of the quickest I have encountered but that could be due to the fact that there was no baggage to collect, no security to go through, leaving only some quick photos in front of the airframe to delay the bus trip back to the terminal.

It was a great way to spend a morning and I cannot thank the 10 Squadron organisation who organised this trip enough! The six-strong crew on the aircraft were great and, along with the escorting officer and all the personnel on the base who were involved, they also deserve praise. While it was no VC10 (I had to say that...), this experience has shown me first-hand how a tanker is a very valuable asset within the RAF, how the professionalism of the pilots and other crewmembers make something as tricky as linking up a high-performance fighter and a large airliner mid-flight look deceptively easy. And of course, I have a few photos to remind me of this wonderful experience.

   

All photos J. Hieminga

 

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