TANKING WITH RAAF 33 SQN By Phil Buckley and Mike Oneil

On Friday 12th August 2016, DUAN was invited along with other media, to take part in a flying sortie where we could watch air to air refuelling and formation flying from on board an RAAF 33 SQN KC-30A MRRT.


The aircraft we flew on was a KC-30A MRRT tanker, A39-001. Home based at RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland, 5 KC-30As MRRT are operated by 33 SQN. A39-001 was deployed to RAAF Darwin to provide refuelling services to the many RAAF and foreign military aircraft which were flying in Pitch Black missions.

In the past the RAAF have used air to air refuelling tankers, with 33 SQN using a fleet of Boeing 707 tankers from the late 1980s. They were withdrawn from service in mid 2008 – see the DUAN story here on the final flight –Final RAAF 707 flight 2008 . The 707 fleet only had probe and drogue refuelling capabilities.

The main purpose of the KC-30A is to be a force multiplier and this is enabled by several methods – air to air refuel using boom along with probe and drogue methods, passenger carrying and cargo movement.

KC-30A A39-001 first flew in March 200img_2122 6 and was delivered to 33 SQN during 2011. The tanker design is based on an Airbus A330-203 airframe modified to conduct air to air refuelling. It can carry up to 270 passengers in 2 class configuration and cargo in the belly hold as well. Powered by 2 x GE CF6-80E1A3 producing 72,000 lb thrust, the KC-30A tanker fly out to 1,800km carrying 100 tonnes of fuel and can remain on station for 4hrs with 50 tonnes available to be offloaded to other aircraft.


The KC-30A contains a variety of systems onboard including military communications systems, advanced navigation systems and an electronic warfare self-protection (EWSP) system which is used for protection against Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs).


The KC-30A MRTT is fitted with two forms of air-to-air refuelling systems – a refuelling boom mounted on the under the rear tail area of the aircraft and a pair of electric refuelling pods underneath each wing, which unreel a hose-and-drogue to refuel probe-equipped aircraft.The aircraft has colourful stripes under the fuselage and wing tips which allow receiver aircraft to line up with the refuelling boom and drogues.


These 2 refuelling systems are controlled by an Air Refuelling Operator who is located in the cockpit with the pilots. The ARO uses a set of cameras placed at the rear of the aircraft and these feed the live views back into the screens at the ARO work station. The ARO can view air to air refuelling in either rather interesting formats either 2D and 3D methods. The ARO also controls the director lights under the fuselage which inform pilots of what they are required to do.



The long  Aerial Refuelling Boom System can only refuel receptacle equipped aircraft. This boom on the KC-30A isnt like the old technology boom such as is found on the KC-135 in the early days of in-flight refuelling, this boom is a modern version which is high tech as it uses a ‘fly-by-wire’ system to connect and transfer fuel.



Complementing the boom and found located under the outer wing on both side, are a pair of electric refuelling probe and drogue pods.The drogue unit (sometimes called a basket) is attached to the tanker via the Hose Drum Unit (HDU). The drogue resembles a shuttlecock and is attached at its narrow end with a valve to a flexible hose. When deployed in flight, trailing back from the HDU, the drogue expands and this stabilises the hose’s trajectory. When expanded it also provides a “funnel” to aid the connection of the receiver aircraft probe into the hose.Located at the end of the probe setup, is a fuel valve that is closed until it hooks up with the drogue’s forward internal receptacle. Once securely connected this value opens and allows the transferring of fuel from the tanker to receiver.


The KC-30A is cleared to refuel a growing number of approved RAAF and foreign military aircraft types. The aircraft DUAN flew on has been around the world a bit and in 2015 was deployed to the USA at Edwards AFB and undertook tests with an F-35A development aircraft. It made  59 contacts over a 4hr flight to test the boom operations with the F-35. The familiar grey shape of 33 SQN’s KC-30A tankers have also been seen around the world taking part in local and foreign training exercises along with military combat operations like Exercise Arnhem Thunder, Exercise Northern Shield, Operation OKRA Exercise and Bersama Lima

The RAAF plan to acquire 2 more KC-30A tankers by 2018 to bring its fleet to 7 of the type.


The paperwork, checks and briefing before the flight explained what we were to expect and what was required of us. We joined a large contingent of army personnel who were assigned to the flight. We took off from RAAF base Darwin at 12.05pm with the aircraft’s callsign allocated as “Dragon 21” and tracked south towards the exercise range to join on to a refuelling race track where we were to wait and refuel several of the Pitch Black exercise’s aircraft.



One airborne we were able to take in the glorious views of Darwin and its suburbs.


We spent a bit of time transiting to the exercise area and then once there, the pilots established our aircraft on the refuel circuit and we did some laps of the racetrack. This enabled us passengers to admire the north west Australian landscape which was quite interesting from up high. At a designated time, the KC-30A pilots got prepared for the refuelling tasks and started to slow down the aircraft for the refuelling speed to match the receiver’s speed. Meanwhile down the back of the KC-30A, all the media onboard started to gimg_2133et ready and peered out the windows looking for the jets. Before long we were joined up by the first of 2 flights of USAF 14th FS, 35th FW F-16CM’s which refuelled in 2 sections of 3-4 aircraft. The planned refuelling aircraft would join up on the tanker on the left rear side and then move in closer to just off the wing. They then received approved to refuel by the ARO and move in either to the drogue position or move to the rear and under the tail to the boom position.

Photos by Phil Buckley


With the boom view being off limits and remote controlled from the cockpit, we were not able to the see the direct connect but witnessed nevertheless close formation flying as the F-16s formed up on both sides of the tanker while we were flying in the racetrack.



While flying in the racetrack pattern we experienced around 30-40degrees of bank while the aircraft turned the corners of the race track profile taking place




Once both F-16s flights were refuelled they broke away from the tanker formation from off the right wing and slowly retreated into the distance, soon becoming mere spots on the horizon as we kept on the racetrack and they went back to their mission.




After a while of doing more racetrack flying,  we then observed the probe and drogue refuelling method up close which was much more visually interesting, when two 1 SQN RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets formed up on the tanker and then conducted their refuelling.

Photos by Mike Oneil


Photos by Phil Buckley


The 2 F/A-18Fs departed after forming off both wing tips and lit the afterburner and flew straight ahead. The noise of the afterburner was clearly heard inside the tanker by all.

During the refuelling flight various media organisations interviewed 33 SQN crew members. Others chatted with the media to let us gain insights to their roles onboard.



We headed back to RAAF Darwin with a slightly steeper descent profile than what you would expect on an airliner. The air above Darwin was noticeably hazy due to the local fires burning.


We finally landed after around 3hrs airborne with 33 SQN. The experience to be able to witness a military force multiplier at work – conducting air to air refuelling – was a great opportunity which is very rarely given to non military people.We were very appreciative of the RAAF to allow us on board to see what happens up close.


DUAN thanks the RAAF 33SQN aircrew, Air Movements personnel at RAAF Darwin and the RAAF Public Affairs team for enabling us to come onboard and document the air to air refuelling operations. Thanks also to the 14th FS USAF and 1 SQN RAAF pilots for tanking and giving us the rare chance to photo military aircraft in the air to air environment.