The New Do-It-All Airbus Tanker Transport Will Keep the RAF Flying HighS

As the Royal Air Force's fleet of heavy transport and tanker jets come to the end of their operational service lives, the RAF is faced with replacing a lot of planes. Luckily, the new Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport is a union jack of all trades.

As its name implies, the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) is an Airbus A330-200 aircraft refitted as an aerial refueling tanker and heavy transport plane. The MRTT, code named "Voyager," came about as part of the 2003 Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) program. It aims to phase out the RAF's fleet of 26 VC10 and Lockheed TriStars for aerial refueling and transport duties with 14 MRTTs. Valued at £13 billion ($20.9 billion) structured over 27 years, the FSTA is the largest privately-financed defense initiative in the world. The Airtanker group, a consortium of Cobham, EADS UK, Rolls-Royce, Thales UK and VT Group will build, retrofit, and maintain the planes while the RAF will have complete operational control over them. Interestingly, when the Air Force isn't using them as tankers, the MRTTs can—and will—be used to transport civilians.

The MRTT begins its life as a normal A330-200 commercial jetliner built in Toulouse, France. From there, the plane is transferred to the Cobham manufacturing facilities at Bournemouth International Airport, UK, where it is to be retrofitted.

The retrofit itself is a huge ordeal. The aircraft is adorned with a pair of Cobham FRL 900E Mark 32B refueling pods (known as the KC2 variant), which sit under each wing, and a center-line refueling system in the plane's underbelly (the KC3), along with the necessary piping and control systems. In addition, the A330 is also often retrofitted with military avionics systems, though they will be hot-swapable for civilian transport. In all, the MRTT can host up to 380 passengers (either soldiers or civilians) in its wide-body cabin, or port 45 tons of goods in its modified cargo hold. The MRTT can also be reconfigured for use as a monstrous Medivac capable of carrying 130 stretchers.

In its primary role as an air-to-air refueling tanker, the MRTT is unrivaled. It carries as much as 139,090 liters—111 tons or 245,000 pounds—of jet fuel which allows it to stay aloft longer and refuel more aircraft than the airships it is replacing. As you can see in the image above, refueling is accomplished with a hose and drogue system.

Airtanker delivered the first of the new A330 MRTTs to the UK in 2011. So far, five countries—the UK, Saudi Arabia, Australia, the US, and India—have ordered 28 of the planes for their refueling needs as well. Who knows, 30 years from now, a fleet of these may be pressed into service keeping S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying aircraft carriers aloft. [Wikipedia 1, 2 - Air Force Technology - Airbus Military 1, 2 - Defense Industry Daily]