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European Air Refuelling Training 2015
Published: May 2015
European Air Refuelling

Compared to the United States Air-to-Air refuelling aircraft are rare within Europe. Tankers are operated by France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom but in far less numbers then the US while operating a wide variety of aircraft types. The USAF operates two types, the McDonnell Douglas KC-10A and Boeing KC-135R/T Stratotanker with the USMC and SOC operating Lockheed-Martin KC-130 Hercules variants. The European tanker fleet consists of the Airbus D&S A310MRTT, A330MRTT (within RAF service Voyager KC2 / KC3), Boeing B-707, Boeing KC-767A, Boeing C-135FR, KC-130H/J Hercules and McDonnell Douglas KDC-10.

In 2011 under a United Nations mandate NATO countries conducted operation Unified Protector over the Mediterranean and Libya. The operation lead to three significant conclusions: The European nations were too much depending on US AAR capability with a shortfall in European tanker resources, it lacked a dedicated AAR planning cell and tankers were not certified to refuel coalition fighter aircraft. Started in 2012 the European Defence Agency (EDA) worked on four pillars related to AAR with one of the programs focused on acquiring new refuelling aircraft. The Netherlands took the lead in this program where the new tanker should be a Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft. Another initiative taken by the EDA, Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) and the European Air Transport Command (EATC) resulted in organizing the European Air Refuelling Training exercise, the first dedicated European exercise for AAR refuelling units.

European Air Refuelling Training Exercise (EART)

The first EART took place at RNLAF Air Base Eindhoven. The base is home to 334 squadron operating two KDC-10 aircraft capable of air refuelling and air transport as well as the sole Gulfstream IV, 336 squadron operates the four Hercules aircraft. Eindhoven AB also houses the European Air Transport Command. It was founded by four members in 2010 and by 2014 had grown to seven nations: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Spain. From the start if focused at optimizing the member nations air transport missions by using the pooling and sharing principle. Currently the EATC within its operational division also fields a dedicated AAR planning cell.
EART exercises are organized with the goal to train both the air- and ground crews to run refuelling operations from deployed operation bases (DOB). It provides the crews also the chance to learn from each other’s operational procedures and exchange experiences.

In 2014 the RNLAF offered Eindhoven AB as a DOB for the EART exercise as well as offering to run it simultaneously with its annual fighter exercise Frisian Flag (FF) flown from Leeuwarden AB in the Northern Province Friesland. Until 2013 FF received tankers support (German Air Force A310MRTT, Dutch KDC-10) with the tankers operated from their home bases. The German aircraft flew to Eindhoven to take part in EART 2014 with the Italian Air Force joining the second week.
EART 2015 was extended with participant, the French Air Force deploying one of its C-135FR and again ran in conjunction with Frisian Flag.

Frisian Flag missions are flown over Northern Netherlands and Germany, Denmark as well as the Waddenzee and North Sea till the airspace controlled by the United Kingdom providing 74.000km² of airspace. Within this area dedicated AAR refuelling tracks, ‘SHELL’ located west of island Texel and ‘ESSO’ west of the Danish coast, are already available or are created during the flying times of the exercise. FF missions take place from 09.30 – 11.30 and 13.30 – 16.00 CEST. Besides the participating fighter units Leeuwarden also houses the AAR planner cell. FF mission commanders submit their need for AAR support to this cell that will then work out the request and rely it to the units at EART. Based on the request two or three tankers will be assigned to a mission. As the tankers are equipped with a boom, drogue & hose or both systems combinations of fighter / AAR aircraft are made.

Planning and briefing at Eindhoven started early in the morning with the first mission leaving around 09.00 and the second around 13.00 CEST to enter the ARR tracks 20 – 30 minutes later. Tankers remained active in the refuelling tracks until they received information that their tasking was completed or their tasking was diverted to other operational areas. The retasking of one or more tankers was requested by the FF mission commander to better support its mission which resulted for instance in an AAR missions over Leeuwarden AB. After completing the AAR mission the tankers could either return to Eindhoven or conduct their own training which included multi tanker formations or different rendezvous procedures. EART offered an unique possibility to crews to gain or re-gain their qualifications in a short amount of time which wouldn’t be possible in day-to-day operations. Missions ended with debriefings for the aircrews and preparing the aircraft for the next mission by the ground crews.

European Air Refuelling Training 2015

During the first week of EART 2015 three tankers participated. The Italian Air Force participated only in the second week as they also did in 2014.

Country: Aircraft: Unit: AAR System:
France C-135FR GRV 02.091 ‘Bretagne’ Boom, Drogue & Hose
Germany A310MRTT BMVg Drogue & Hose
Italy KC-767A 14 Stormo Boom, Drogue & Hose
The Netherlands KDC-10 334 Squadron Boom

Boom of the French C-135FR.  C-135FR drogue / hose refuelling system 

Aircraft: Missions: Fuel offloads (Lbs): Receiver(s):
C-135FR 12 * 254.300 87
A310MRTT 19 333.118 71
KC-767A 7 ** 101.600 23
KDC-10 19 229.400 61
Total 57 918.418 242


* One none EART related mission was flown by the C-135FR, it support a night mission of Belgian Air Component F-16s.

** The KC-767A is certified to refuel all Italian Air Force aircraft but during Frisian Flag only cleared to refuel the Spanish Air Force Hornets.

The Dutch KDC-10 supported both the Polish and RNLAF F-16s; the A310MRTT received its German Eurofighter colleagues as well as the Hornets from both Finland (F/A-18C) and Spain (EF-18A/B); the C-135FR operated in support of the Florida & Oregon Air National Guard F-15C/D Eagles and Spanish EF-18s.

The Eagles arrived at Leeuwarden at the end of March, early April as the second Theater Security Package send to Europe. Taking advantage of their one month operations from the Netherlands they joined the Frisian Flag exercise.

European Air-to-Air Refuelling and EART future

The European Air Refuelling Training has proved to be an effective exercise for tanker crews to conduct operations from deployed operating bases as well as supporting fighter crews during their missions.  With the experiences gained during the 2014 and 2015 exercises the EART concept is now open for other nations. It’s intended that EART, providing standard support, can be hosted by other nations multiple times a year in support of (inter)national fighter exercises. In this respect it’s likely that the successful combination of EART and Frisian Flag will be continued.

Another challenge ahead is the purchase and introduction into service of the new MRTT. By the end of 2014 Airbus D&S was selected over Boeing to start negotiations to acquire four A330MRTTs. The manufacturer is expected to receive a Request for Proposal (RfP) by the end of April. The RfP will include an option for a further four aircraft.

The new MRTT has to enter service in 2019 / 2020. In the same timeframe the RNLAF plans to retire its two KDC-10s. A new international unit consisting of the Netherlands, Norway and Poland will stand up to operate the new aircraft with most likely absorbing 334 squadron. Eindhoven AB will be home to the new unit but aircraft will also operate from two forward operating bases, one in Norway and one in Poland. At present more EDA members have shown an interest in joining the MRTT program. Should the unit grow with one or more members the option can be converted into an order.

Except the Royal Air Force who’s already operating the Voyager the French Air Force ordered 12 A330MRTTs in December 2014. Should the RfP lead to an order for Airbus the European skies will see a more standardized AAR fleet of aircraft supporting NATO / UN operations from the end of decade.

The author would like to thank the European Air Transport Command and Royal Netherlands Air Force for their support.
EART 2015 Photo gallery
KDC-10, A310MRTT and C-135FR ready to depart for an EART mission. German AF A310MRTT lined up while the RNLAF KDC-10 takes-off.  The French Air Force C-135FR taxiing to the runway.
Mission completed the German A310MRTT. and Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10 return at Eindhoven.  
 C-135FR sitting on the ramp receiving maintenance.  C-135FR boom. 
and refuelling pod front and
back view.
Italian Air Force KC-767A taking part in the second week.
Refuelling pod installed on the wing of the KC-767A. Shortly after entering the refuelling track
the coast of Texel the first receivers arrived
Polish F-16s from 10 ELT.
They were followed by their colleagues from the Royal Netherlands Air Force with F-16s.
from both Volkel and Leeuwarden.