Airbus has conducted the first-ever fully automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R) operation with a boom system.

Conducted over the Atlantic Ocean, the flight test campaign involving an Airbus tanker test aircraft equipped with the A3R solution. An F-16 fighter aircraft of the Portuguese Air Force was used as a receiver.

The operation marks a significant milestone of the industrialisation phase of A3R systems prior to its implementation in the A330 MRTT tanker development.

The test lasted for a total of 45 flight test hours, with 120 dry contacts with the A3R system.

It covered the whole aerial refuelling envelope, consolidating the capabilities of the development of F-16 and MRTT at this stage.

The certification phase is expected to commence next year.

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Airbus Tanker and Derivatives Programmes head Didier Plantecoste said: “The achievement of this key milestone for the A3R programme highlights the A330 MRTT’s excellent capability roadmap development and once more confirms that our tanker is the world’s reference for present and future refuelling operations.

“Our special thanks go to the Portuguese Air Force for their continued support and help on this crucial development.”

Following the system activation by the ARO, the A3R flies the boom automatically. With an accuracy of a few centimetres, it maintains the alignment between the boom tip and the receiver receptacle.

Real-time alignment and stability check are done to ensure a safe distance is maintained between the boom and the receiver.

This also determines the optimum moment to extend the telescopic beam, achieving connection with the receiver.

Following this, the transfer of fuel is initiated. Upon completion, the disconnection is commanded.

This clears the boom away from the receiver by retracting the telescopic beam. The boom flies away, keeping a safe separation distance.

During the operation, the whole process is monitored by ARO. No additional equipment on the receiver aircraft is required for the transfer of fuel by the A3R system.

The system will reduce air refuelling operator (ARO) workload, improve safety and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling transfer in operational conditions. Additionally, it will maximise aerial superiority.

The A3R system intends to develop technologies to reach fully autonomous capabilities.