BOISE, Idaho: If you could only see inside the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT), you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a commercial airplane.
There are passenger seats, safety cards in the seat pockets and a pre-flight safety briefing by RSAF airmen complete with seat belt and life vest demonstrations.
On Tuesday (Oct 8), reporters were taken for a flight aboard the MRTT on the sidelines of Exercise Forging Sabre in Idaho, where the tanker is refuelling fighter jets in the air so they can fly longer missions and take out more enemies in a single sortie.
About midway through the three-hour flight, when the MRTT refuelled three F-16 and two F-15SG fighter jets, the pilot announced that passengers should buckle up because he was about to attempt “some manoeuvres”.
The seat belt sign turned on, and soon the whole commercial airplane vibe quickly vanished.
What followed was a stomach-churning series of sharp 45-degree banks and 90-degree turns designed to evade the enemy. The almost aerobatic stunts exerted a hard gravitational force that pushed on the stomach and pulled on the face, before releasing and creating a weightless, heart-dropping feeling.
It was a roller-coaster flight that had some reporters cheering but others reaching for their puke bags and rushing to the lavatory.
But it was necessary because the MRTT is more than just a glorified Airbus A330. It operates behind the scenes yet plays a crucial role on the battlefield, transporting troops and cargo while keeping fighter jets flying in the sky.
The MRTT can also carry more fuel, cargo and passengers than its predecessor, the KC-135, and uses technology to make air-to-air refuelling easier and more efficient. It is a high-value asset that can make or break a mission.
“Once (enemies) take us down, (us) being a force multiplier, it significantly affects the air campaign,” said Major (MAJ) Victor Ong, 36, commanding officer of the 112 Squadron which flies the MRTT.
MORE FUEL, CARGO AND PASSENGERS
When the MRTT is not carrying passengers or cargo, it can hold 111,000kg of jet fuel, enough to fill the internal fuel tanks of about 35 F-16s. This is 20 per cent more than what the KC-135 could carry.
“How the tanker fits into this whole puzzle is it allows the fighters to go even further and stay (airborne) even longer, so you have that time and space to move them around if you require them to do so,” MAJ Ong said.
The MRTT can also carry up to 266 passengers or 37,000kg of cargo, a big upgrade on the KC-135 which could ferry about 60 people and a “limited” amount of cargo.
MAJ Ong said this helps when sending fighter jets to an exercise overseas, when the RSAF would previously require more aircraft to carry cargo and passengers. “Now, we can all put them into one depending on what's the configuration (of the MRTT),” he added.
EASIER AIR-TO-AIR REFUELLING
The benefits extend to crew on the MRTT who conduct the air-to-air refuelling.
They sit in the cockpit behind the pilots, monitoring a video feed and using joysticks to extend and move a boom that transfers fuel to the fighter jets. The fighters come in from the rear, and both aircraft hold steady close to each other, but not too close, as the boom snaps in place.
It is not without difficulty. The fighter jets can find it challenging to get into position, considering the size of the boom and the aerodynamic forces it creates. It is a delicate process that requires coordination, subtle adjustments and skill.
“It’s a very different scenario each time,” said air refuelling operator First Sergeant (1SG) Jonathan Augustine, 26. “It’s us plus the receiver both trying to get into that good position. So it’s a lot of reacting as well as predicting at the same time when you’re going for contact.”
The MRTT tries to overcome this by making the video feed three-dimensional, offering crew a better perception of depth. There are also three smaller screens giving a panoramic view of the rear and infrared cameras for night refuelling.
Once contact is established, the MRTT has a mechanism which automatically keeps the boom aligned with the fighter jet, freeing crew to focus on additional requests and situational awareness during refuelling.
In contrast, crew on the KC-135 had to lie prone at the rear of the aircraft, manually looking out of a window while controlling the boom. At night, they were only guided by external lights on both aircraft. And there was no auto alignment mechanism, so they had to manually adjust the boom.
“There’s a lot of technology incorporated in the MRTT which makes our job a lot easier and way more comfortable,” 1SG Augustine said.
NOT AN EASY JOB
However, he acknowledged that the technology are simply aids and that the operator’s skill remains most important, saying: “When you’re going for contact, it’s all on you, controls-wise.”
“The thing about being a boom operator is it’s quite a dangerous scenario, because usually two aircraft don’t fly so close,” he added, calling the moments prior to contact the “most critical”.
Nevertheless, 1SG Augustine is confident that the four-and-a-half months of training he went through overseas before operating the platform has prepared him well.
“We have gone through training over and over and again for all of this,” he said. “The receivers are trained – locally we train almost every week. So, we always prioritise safety when we are doing this. If there’s any unsafe situation, we do have our procedures to call it off or back it up. We can always try it again.”
BEING A HIGH-VALUE TARGET
But perhaps the biggest safety issue for the MRTT is the fact that it’s a high-value target carrying thousands of pounds of fuel high in the sky.
The commanding officer MAJ Ong said the MRTT will usually be deployed in a designated refuelling “safe area” which enemies cannot reach, with factors considered including how far their missiles can go.
Still, he highlighted that the MRTT can follow fighter jets into dangerous territory during “special circumstances” like wartime requirements.
“When you do that, there will be high-value protection procedures in place and there’ll be protection to make sure we are safe,” he added. “If there’s any detection of a threat, then we will have to carry out our retrograde operations where we will have to move to a safe zone.”
These “retrograde operations” include the evasive manoeuvres reporters were treated to during the demonstration flight.
F-15SG pilot Captain (CPT) Leonard Lim, 28, said the MRTT at Exercise Forging Sabre only operates in “neutral land” where battles don’t take place, adding that fighter jets would fly there to refuel before returning to the conflict zone.
“Basically, we don’t want any threat to the MRTT,” he said. “But then again, we don’t want it too far behind that it’s not effective for fighters to employ and get the gas as quickly we can.”
While the air refuelling operator 1SG Augustine recognised that the MRTT’s role might not be as prominent as that of the fighter jets, he remains proud of his job nonetheless.
“We are not really involved in the whole fighting aspect, like fighters are,” he said. “But we are a high-value asset, and there’s pride in being involved in that. We know our role and we know how important we are in the big picture of things.”