French Armée de l'Air Boeing C-135FR Stratotanker deployed to Kleine
Brogel airbase for an in-flight refuelling training exercise between 21st
and 25th February 2005.
Jos Schoofs caught Boeing C-135FR "93-CC"- s/n 63-8472 of
GRV 93 upon its arrival at Kleine Brogel airbase on Monday 21 February
refuelling or the practice of transferring fuel from one aircraft to
another during flight is very much a necessity during extended patrols and
long-distance ferry flights or on military missions over hostile territory
which cannot be approached via a direct route due to the enemy presence.
history of air-to-air refuelling (AAR) has seen a variety of technical
solutions, two of which are predominantly used today. The first and most
widely used system is definitely the "probe and drogue" one, developed by
Flight Refuelling Ltd in the United Kingdom in 1949. It consists of a
flexible drogue trailed from a tanker into which the receiving aircraft
plugs a probe. Despite its flexibility the probe and drogue system offers
a relatively low fuel flow rate and larger aircraft, such as bombers,
strategic transporters or surveillance (AWACS)
would need to spend too
connected up to the tanker if they were to use this method.
Flight Refuelling Ltd.
Mk.32 drogue-type underwing pod on the Armée de l'Air Boeing C-135FR
alleviate this problem, Boeing developed in the fifties and at the request
of the U.S. Air Force, a special "rigid boom", which can be steered via
two V-shaped stabilizing control surfaces and has a telescopic sprung pipe
fitted with a fuel nozzle at the end. Put into service for supporting the
Cold War era American strategic bombers, the rigid boom system was quickly
adopted onto the whole USAF fleet including fighters. Each coin having two
sides, this latter system is nevertheless limited to one receiver aircraft
at a time and requires a dedicated operator in the tanker to fly the boom
into the receiving
The rigid boom of C-135FR
"93-CC"- s/n 63-8472. Ground crew members are cleaning the boomer's
position windows before a mission.
As their USAF counterparts,
Air Component's F-16s have a build-in rigid boom receptacle, located on
the top of the fuselage, just ahead of the fin leading edge. It is
normally covered by an inward-hinged door when not in use. Since the first
deployment of four Belgian F-16s at Nellis airbase (Nevada-USA) in 1984 -
in the framework of the famous Red Flag exercise - AAR procedures have
become a standard of the Belgian pilots operational training. As Belgium
not own tankers,
the required training and recurrent qualification sessions are performed
thanks to the help of Allies tankers such as
Belgian F-16 pilots have already practised AAR in
combat mission over the Adriatic Sea, during the Balkan conflicts.
French tanker force
Ordered in 1962 for supporting the nuclear deterrent Dassault Mirage IVA
bombers, the French tanker fleet has always belonged to the piloted
component of the Commandement des Forces Aériennes Stratégiques (CFAS),
although they are today commonly used by all combat aircraft within the
Armée de l'Air. Re-skinned and upgraded in the late seventies as well as
being re-engined with CFM56 high bypass-ratio turbofans in the late
eighties, the French tankers are grouped since 1993 into a single air
refuelling unit, renamed Groupe de Ravitaillement en Vol 93 "Bretagne" (GRV
93 or Flight Refuelling Group 93) on 1st September 2004.
The GRV 93 is based at Istres and fields eleven Boeing C-135FR
Stratotanker coming from the original French order as well as three
second-hand KC-135R's purchased to the U.S. in 1997 and 1998. Originally
equipped with a single central refuelling drogue these aircraft offer
today either the flying boom - but on request only - or the probe and
drogue system. The French Armée de l'Air "discovered" the advantage and
the use of the rigid boom in the early nineties when its fuel greedy E-3F
Sentry surveillance aircraft (AWACS) were becoming operational. In mid
1993, the fleet started to receive Flight Refuelling Ltd. Mk.32
drogue-type underwing pods considerably augmenting safety and flexibility,
permitting a.o. simultaneous refuelling of up to three probe equipped
fighters. The GRV 93 aircraft have also a dual capability of air transport
and air refuelling. They can perform hauling supplies as cargo and
passengers transport. Despite their age, the French C-135FR and KC-135R
are no doubt a key element of Armée de l'Air projection capabilities.
A French delegation and a Boeing C-135FR Stratotanker (93-CC s/n 63-8472)
of GRV 93 deployed to Kleine Brogel airbase for a five days air-to-air
refuelling training exercise with Belgian F-16 pilots between 21st and
25th of February 2005. The purposes of this deployment was on one hand
the training and AAR (re-)qualification of the Air Component F-16 pilots
and on the other hand the training and the qualification of a handful of
French boomer operators (ORV - Opérateur de Ravitaillement en Vol) for the
rigid boom in-flight refuelling of lightweight fighters.
FA-128-Call Sign "Matrix 64", a N° 350 Squadron Lockheed F-16AM cautiously
approaching the boom of the Stratotanker
This AAR training session was organized in the framework of the
French-Belgian bilateral agreement of last year, covering the use of the
Armée de l'Air Stratotankers by the Air Component F-16s. This agreement is
a result of the multilateral Air Transport and Air-to-air Refuelling
Exchange of Services (ATARES) programme, initiated under the auspices of
the European Air Group (EAG), where the Armée de l'Air has proposed the
rigid boom system of its tankers to enable AAR of USAF-type aircraft in
service with many of the EAG-partners. France has signed similar
agreements with Italy and Norway, two other F-16 operators.
cramped rigid boom operator's (ORV) position in the lower back of the
Coded named Mission 901, this French deployment involved two fully
qualified tanker crews or eight
three ORVs on rigid boom qualification and about ten support personnel.
For the sake of convenience they were hosted alternatively by 349th "Goedendag"
and 31 "Tiger" Squadrons. A total of eight AAR missions were performed
including two night missions on Tuesday 22nd and Wednesday 23rd. Mainly
used operating areas were NATO air-to-air refuelling tracks
near Nörvenich and Mönchengladbach, close to the Dutch border, and
over Ramstein airbase. Each mission involved the tanker as well as 10 to
20 fighters coming from N°10 Wing of Kleine Brogel and N°2 Wing of
Florennes. On Tuesday 22nd, the C-135FR 93-CC was temporary grounded at
Kleine Brogel and was immediately replaced for two days by another one,
A typical daylight mission was the one performed on 24th February
afternoon when the French tanker, orbiting over Ramstein, trained two ORVs
rigid boom operations
through the refuelling of no less than thirteen F-16s of 350 "Ambiorix"
and 31 "Tiger" Squadrons. Even performed on a regular basis, being a rigid
boom ORV is no easy job. As they do not use any computers to guide the
boom, acquiring the required skill is truly an on-the-job experience.
During refuelling operations, the tanker flew in the Virgin track at
29.000 feet and at constant speed, while the receiver F-16 arrived
starboard, from behind, and took a stand-by right observation position
flying formation along the same line as the tanker wing.
F-16BM FB-21-Call Sign
"Matrix 63" of 350 Squadron, taking up a starboard observation position
flying formation along the same line as the tanker wing.
After a clear and concise radio contact with the boomer he lined up below
the tanker into precontact position. The fighter came then slowly into
contact position guided by a set of green, amber and red lights situated
under the tanker front underfuselage. Laid down on his pallet and looking
out the control window, the ORV unlatched the boom from its stowage
position, and directed it towards the receiver by "flying" it with the
attached wings. The telescoping section was then hydraulically extended
until the nozzle fits into the F-16. When the electrical signal
between the boom and receiver, both valves were hydraulically opened, and
pumps on the tanker drove fuel through the shaft of the boom, and into the
French "tanker" Connection, FA-81-Call Sign "Tiger 42" of, ... you guessed
it, 31 "Tiger" Squadron taking on fuel.
When refuelling was completed, the valves closed and the boom
automatically retracted. As soon as disconnected the F-16 skids to the
tanker's port side, flying formation before vanishing in the sky. The
whole operation took about five minutes. Some fighter pilots repeated two
or three times the - French - connection procedure.
tanks topped-up, Lockheed F-16AM FA-72 and FA-125 of 350 Squadron bank
away from the tanker to continue their mission.
On the afternoon of Friday 25th February, mission accomplished, the GRV 93
delegation returned to its homebase not without having fixed an
the Belgian pilots
31 March. On that day French tankers will for the first time support a
Cross Continental Deployment of ten or so Air Component F-16s to NAS El
Centro (California-USA) and later to Cold Lake CFB in Canada for
operational training. This perfectly illustrated the slow but surely
advancing integration of European air arms through a fair and effective
mutualisation of the various national assets.
We leave the concluding word to the boss of the French detachment, Captain
Alexandre Vidal, who, during the traditional exchange of thanks and
presents, underlined the very professional dimension of his interlocutors
and the Belgian pilots’ perfect control of the in-flight refuelling art.
The symphathetic crew of
Armée de l'Air Boeing C-135FR "93-CC"- s/n 63-8472 of GRV 93. Detachment
leader Captain A. Vidal is fourth from left.
Daniel Brackx &
(AviaScribe) in cooperation with
Acknowledgments: Cpt Laurent Collin (DG-IRP), Cpt Luc Vandefeesten (10 W),
Lt Roeland Van Gorp (DG-IRP), DICOD, and the crew of 93-CC: Cpt Alexandre
Vidal, Cpt Marc Laubens, Cpt Nicolas André, Lt Patrick Krieger, Adjt
Christophe Franz & Adjt Francis Roy.
28/12/11 13:39 Daniel