The U.S. Air Force’s newest air refueling aircraft, the KC-46A Pegasus, is undergoing a variety of tests out of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Starting April 29, the KC-46 conducted the first refueling test with a Travis AFB, Calif., C-5M Super Galaxy. The testing is a part of a larger test program to certify aerial refueling operations between the KC-46 and 22 different receiver aircraft.
Maj. Drew Bateman, 22nd Airlift Squadron chief of standardization and evaluation and a C-5M pilot, flew the Air Force’s largest aircraft for testing on April 29. He flew it again May 15.
“The April 29 sortie was the first where the KC-46 and the C-5M made contact,” Bateman said. “That was awesome to be a part of. You have a few pinch me moments in life and this was one of them for me. Not everyone gets to be a part of something like this. We were able to get two aircraft together for the first time.”
“Every test flight begins with a continuity check so the KC-46 crew ensures they can connect and disconnect safely with our aircraft,” Bateman added. “From there, we continue testing a variety of items at multiple speeds and altitudes throughout the sortie.”
One capability Bateman and his C-5M crew mates tested with the KC-46 was the ability to connect with both aircraft near max gross weight.
“For these tests, we were required to be over 800,000 pounds with cargo and fuel,” Bateman said. “Our 60th Aerial Port Squadron Airmen developed a load plan, the expediters loaded the cargo onto the airplane and our maintainers ensured the C-5M was flyable. It’s a huge team effort to ensure we are mission ready. I feel like I have the smallest part of it. I just fly the airplane.”
On April 29, Master Sgt. Willie Morton, 418th Flight Test Squadron flight test boom operator, oversaw operations in the back of the KC-46 during the testing process.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Morton said. “I was a KC-10 Extender boom operator at Travis for about 13 years so going to the KC-46 and being a part of the next step in aerial refueling is pretty awesome. I have the chance to provide input on an aircraft that will be flying missions for many years.”
To complete refueling with the KC-46, boom operators must use a series of cameras that project a 3D image on a screen. These refueling experts then use that image to carefully guide aircraft into position, Morton said.
“We are testing capabilities at low altitudes, high speeds, high altitudes and high speeds, as well as heavy and light gross weights so we know how the aircraft will respond,” he said. “We have to find the optimal speed the C-5M can fly at to support refueling. We are also doing our best to ensure the mechanical compatibility of the KC-46 and C-5M.”
According to Lt. Col. Zack Schaffer, 418th FLTS KC-46 Integrated Test Force director, the testing is a joint effort between the USAF and Boeing.
“The KC-46s being used for this test effort are owned by Boeing and operated by a combined Air Force and contractor crew,” Schaffer said. “All the test planning and execution is being led by the 418th FLTS, part of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards. The flight test program evaluates the mechanical compatibility of the two aircraft at all corners of the boom flight envelope, as well as handling qualities of both the tanker, boom and receiver throughout the required airspeed and altitude envelope at different gross weights and center of gravity combinations.”
The 418th FLTS is also responsible for developmental testing of the C-5M, and is providing a test pilot to support the C-5M side of the certification testing, Schaffer added. The C-5M was crewed primarily by the 22nd AS with augmentation from the 418th.
“Additionally, the military utility, lighting compatibility and fuel transfer functionality is also being evaluated,” Schaffer said. “The testing is expected to take approximately 12 sorties to complete.”
Once the testing is complete, the results will be used to develop the operational clearance necessary to allow KC-46s to refuel the C-5M for missions.
“The C-5M is also one of the receivers required to complete the KC-46 Initial Operational Test and Evaluation program, which is a prerequisite to the KC-46 being declared operationally capable,” Schaffer said. “Completing the testing necessary to expand the operational capabilities of the KC-46 is a critical step in modernizing the Air Force’s aging tanker fleet. The 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis has provided outstanding support to ensure this testing can get the warfighter expanded capabilities as soon as possible.”
Identifying potential problems is also a focus of the testing, Moore added.
“It’s important, if any issues are identified during the testing, to ensure counter measures are created to overcome those issues,” Moore said. “We want to get the best product to the warfighter to extend global reach and mobility.”
Travis is scheduled to receive its first KC-46 in 2023.