The 22nd Air Refueling Wing’s KC-46A Pegasus completed a record-setting nonstop flight worldwide.

In a mission known as Project Magellan, the KC-46A Pegasus successfully executed the first nonstop westbound circumnavigation flight, showcasing its capabilities.

The 45-hour mission, which lasted from June 29 to July 1, marked a milestone for the KC-46A Pegasus, Air Mobility Command’s newest tanker aircraft. It demonstrated its endurance and operational reach, and this latest Maximum Endurance Operation (MEO) tested the aircraft’s limits.

The previous record was set by the US Pease Air National Guard’s 157th Air Refueling Wing, which completed a 36-hour endurance mission, the longest for the US Air Mobility Command (AMC).

KC-46A strategic significance

The KC-46A Pegasus proven ability to overcome vast distances is key in the era of great power competition. Capt. Cody Donahue, who played a key role in planning the mission, emphasised the broader implications: “With a 48-hour duty day, you can literally fly across the world.”

The mission involved complex coordination. McConnell Air Force Base demonstrated its refuelling capabilities by supporting various aircraft, including B-2 Spirit bombers and F-15E Strike Eagles, throughout the flight. This proved the tanker’s capacity to refuel multiple aircraft types and its role in ensuring continuous global reach.

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Human performance and safety at the forefront

Project Magellan wasn’t just about the aircraft; it was a test of human endurance and operational safety. The onboard crew, consisting of pilots and boom operators, conducted heavyweight onloads and in-flight refuelling operations, all while managing fatigue and maintaining peak performance.

Capt. Jacob Heyrend, the flight surgeon, played a role in monitoring the crew’s health and performance. By collaborating with a third-party contractor, the mission incorporated fatigue management techniques typically used by elite athletes and astronauts. “Goals for this flight were to see the combined capabilities of a modern tanker and augmented crews, pushing the brink of human performance,” Heyrend stated.

KC-46A collaboration and coordination

Refuelling support was pre-positioned at various global locations, including Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and RAF Mildenhall in England. This ensured that the KC-46A could maintain its nonstop flight, highlighting the operational synergy within the Air Mobility Command and its allied bases.

With developments in international contracts and domestic production, Boeing continues to expand its KC-46A Pegasus tanker fleet globally. In March 2020, Israel sought approval for a $2.4bn (NIS9bn) purchase of up to eight KC-46A aircraft from the US. Subsequently, Boeing secured contracts to deliver additional KC-46As to Japan, bringing their total to six aircraft by November 2022.

According to GlobalData’s intelligence on the global military fixed-wing aircraft market, Japan’s ongoing procurement of the KC-46A Pegasus Tanker Aircraft and India’s potential acquisition of six mid-air refuelling planes are expected to drive growth in the Tanker Aircraft segment in the Asia-Pacific region.

Looking ahead: A new era of aerial refuelling

Col. Cory Damon, commander of the 22nd ARW, reflected on the mission’s success, stating, “The 22nd ARW’s recent MEO around the world showcased not only the unmatched endurance of the KC-46 aircraft but also the incredible resilience and professionalism of our aircrew,”

As the KC-46A Pegasus continues to evolve, Project Magellan stands as a landmark achievement, reinforcing the importance of aerial refuelling in modern military operations. The lessons learned from this mission are expected to inform future operations, enhancing the US Air Force’s ability to project power and maintain global reach in an increasingly complex security environment.

Boeing’s collaboration with the US Air Force culminated in a $2.3bn contract for 15 more KC-46As in November 2023, marking Lot 10 of production. GlobalData’s “US Defense Market 2023-2028” report reveals that the US Air Force currently has 75 of the tanker aircraft.