Pegasus Stretches Her Wings

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KC-46A Pegasus 17-46025 conducts air refuelling with a US Air Force F-16C over the Canadian Arctic during North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Arctic air defence exercise, Amalgam Dart 21-2, on 24 March, 2021. (US Air Force)

Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Moores, Commander 344th Air Refueling Squadron provides insight into the squadron’s transition to the KC-46A Pegasus, its expanding mission set and full integration in the type’s initial operational test and evaluation.

Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Moores accepted command of the 344th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) during a change of commend ceremony at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas on 27 May, 2020. Lt Col Moores is the second commander of the 344th when equipped with the Boeing KC-46A, assuming command from his wingman and friend, Lt Col Wesley Spurlock who commanded the unit when the first KC-46A arrived at McConnell in January 2019.

Lt Col Moores is a command pilot, having logged over 2,500 hours in both airlift (Lockheed C-5 Galaxy) and tanker (Boeing KC-135 and KC-46A) aircraft. During his back-to-back assignment with the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell, Moores has been involved with the KC-46A transition process at the sprawling tanker base.

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A KC-46A Pegasus air refuelling boom as seen from the flight deck of a C-5M Super Galaxy assigned to the 60th Air Mobility Command based at Travis Air Force Base, California prior to air refuelling. (US Air Force)

Squadron Build-Up

Before the first KC-46A Pegasus arrived at McConnell, the 344th ARS comprised just a couple dozen airmen and airwomen. All of them transitioned from the KC-135 with Boeing at its flight test facility at King County Airport in Seattle. Most made repeated trips to Seattle just to stay current in the KC-46A. Today, the 344th ARS has 22 KC-46A aircraft assigned and more than 160 personnel in its ranks, who currently represent half of the entire pool of KC-46A experience in the Air Force.

Lt Col Moores said of the squadron’s build-up: “It’s been a period of growth, not only physically as a squadron but in the development of how we fly, employ and figure out the aeroplane. Two and a half years ago nobody here had even flown the KC-46A out of McConnell Air Force Base. Now we’re flying it all around the world.”

Moores believes that the best thing to ever happen to the KC-46A programme occurred when the US Air Force made the decision to put the aeroplane into the hands of the airmen and airwomen to start its initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) programme. Operational testing is designed to determine whether the aircraft meets its 14 key performance parameters and is operationally suitable. The 344th’s commander has no concerns for his aircrew being able to employ the aircraft.

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Night-time air refuelling. A KC-46A Pegasus flown by the 344th Air Refueling Squadron receives fuel from a KC-46A flown by the reserve associate 924th Air Refueling Squadron on 23 April, 2020. (US Air Force)

From a maintenance perspective, all sorts of hurdles presented themselves during the acceptance process of the KC-46A. Team McConnell maintenance squadrons have figured out the required maintenance processes and procedures using their experience gained from years of maintaining the KC-135.

Air Mobility Command and the 22nd ARW deliberately sought to build a new culture within its KC-46A squadrons at McConnell by filling the ranks of the 344th ARS with maintainers and aircrew who have different backgrounds. Among its aircrew are pilots who flew a variety of types that include the Boeing B-52 bomber, the Northrop Grumman E-8 JSTARS battle management and command and control aircraft and the fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter.

Explaining the concept, Lt Col Moores said: “The fear of course was that the brand-new tanker shows up at McConnell, home of a legacy  community, and the new KC-46A community adopts the ways of the legacy KC-135 community flying the same types of missions. We had to create a culture formed by people with different backgrounds and ways of thinking. That allows us to ask the right questions as we work through the task of evaluating this aeroplane.”

One example cited by Lt Col Moores involved electronic warfare experts assigned to an air refuelling squadron asking questions and making recommendations about how to apply electronic warfare tactics to some of the squadron’s roles. The scenario involved totally different discussions to those conducted by legacy tanker squadron personnel.

When asked what he considered to be the biggest challenges the squadron faced in getting to where it is today, he confirmed that it was “not restrict ourselves in our way of thinking or be content with being a standard legacy tanker. The challenge is to continue looking outside the mission set and ask questions about what else can be accomplished in the future.

“When you get a brand-new aeroplane like this, there’s a lot that comes with training. You would think that training programmes would have been thought through before delivery of the aeroplane, but there were challenges which we had to work through to ensure our programmes meet the requirements.”

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KC-46A Pegasus 17-46027 departs Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan, on 30 July 2021, after receiving cargo from the 127th Logistics Readiness Squadron. (US Air National Guard)

Troubled Start

It’s no secret that the KC-46A has had a troubled start to life. Following development problems encountered by Boeing, the US Air Force was presented with a three-year delay to aircraft deliveries and a conditional aircraft acceptance protocol because of deficiencies with components of the jet’s air refuelling system. As of August 2021, three Category I deficiencies remain. One, a lack of visual acuity in the camera-driven remote vision system used by the boom operator and caused by the camera and processor failing to make timely adjustments in some environmental conditions. This deficiency has also caused undetected contacts of the boom nozzle with the receiver aircraft. Two, no presentation of high boom radial loads at the air refuelling operator’s station. Three, boom stiffness while refuelling lighter aircraft like the A-10 which has caused the receiver pilot to apply more power to create the force necessary to compress the boom nozzle and maintain the refuelling position. Additional power can cause the aircraft to lunge forward at the point of disconnect with risk of collision and damage.

Boeing and the US Air Force are working on a resolution for each deficiency. Fortunately, the deficiencies, significant as they are, manifest as an impingement to the programme and not a showstopper. Away from the problems, the US Air Force has conditionally accepted 45-plus KC-46A aircraft which equip five air refuelling squadrons, one dedicated to training and four assigned to frontline units. These are Air Education and Training Command’s 56th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) based at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma; Air Mobility Command’s 344th ARS based at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas; Air Force Reserve Command’s 77th ARS based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina and the 924th ARS, an associate unit to the 344th co-located at McConnell; and New Hampshire Air National Guard’s 133rd ARS based at Pease International Tradeport.

Despite the KC-46A force build-up, there is a dichotomy of perspective on the KC-46A between programmatic people and others who observe from outside of the programme and the aircrew who operate the aircraft every day. Reflecting on the time when McConnell had not received its first KC-46A, Lt Col Moores recalled local speculation about whether the aeroplane would ever be delivered. “Morale takes a dip, and people start to question their future career. Today, the only thing holding airmen, airwomen and this aeroplane back are the deficiencies that are being worked out at a higher level. If tomorrow was the worst day for the KC-46A programme, its operators would be ready to operate the aeroplane with very little risk. Our operators are that good right now.”

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An Air Mobility Command aeromedical evacuation technician locates inflight medical equipment prior to a mission flown for the KC-46A’s initial operational test and evaluation on 10 July 2020. (US Air Force)

Operational Test

Based at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) is running the KC-46A IOT&E which officially began on 4 June, 2019. The 344th ARS and its reserve associate 924th ARS are the primary units flying all of the test events within AFOTEC’s KC-46A IOT&E test plan.

Explaining the status of the IOT&E, Lt Col Moores said: “We’ve completed the majority of the test plan. Now, everything that’s outstanding on the test plan is in a holding pattern until Boeing presents the RVS 2.0 solution to the Air Force. Then we can finish the IOT&E which is likely to be followed by concurrent IOC and FOC [initial and full operating capability] declarations. RVS 2.0 is holding up the IOC and FOC definitions.”

During the first year that KC-46A aircraft were assigned to the 22nd ARW, AFOTEC had pilots and boom operators embedded in the McConnell-based squadrons. Once the tail end of the test effort was reached, the AFOTEC personnel returned to Kirtland to reduce costs. All test data captured during the IOT&E missions is sent to AFOTEC for analysis, an essential but hidden aspect of the operational test programme. One equally important aspect is much less hidden: aircraft type clearance for air refuelling with the KC-46A. To date the F/A-18 Hornet, F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler are cleared to use the centreline drogue system, and the B-52, C-5, KC-10, C-17, KC-46A, HC-130, MC-130, F-15, F-16, F-22, and F-35 are cleared to use the boom system. The latest type to be certified was the Boeing B-1B bomber following an IOT&E mission flown with a B-1 assigned to the 37th Bomb Squadron based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota on 17 May, 2021.

As IOT&E slows down caused by a lack of remaining test points, Lt Col Moores is certain the appetite for using the KC-46A from around the US Air Force will continue to grow. One source causing a bigger appetite is exposure of the aircraft given to combatant commanders. “It’s definitely going to start moving very quickly in the next couple of years,” he said.

Current Tasking

In addition to its regular tasking roles of air refuelling, aeromedical evacuation, air transport of passengers and cargo, the KC-46A-equipped squadrons at McConnell are participating in an increasing number of exercises in the United States to further evaluate the aircraft.

The US Air Force Weapons School based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada runs two courses in each fiscal year. Each six-month course culminates with a two-week phase known as Weapons School Integration, dubbed WSINT. This comprises a series of complex, large-force employment missions that serve as the capstone portion of the student’s course. Each combat-coded major design series aircraft, helicopter and unmanned air vehicle serving in the US Air Force inventory has a dedicated weapons squadron to train its undergraduates. Based at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, the 509th Weapons Squadron serves the KC-135 community and is likely to also serve the KC-46A in the future. A weapons school programme has not been finalised.

Missions flown from Nellis have a high operational tempo and are both complex and robust in nature, even for tanker crews. In December 2020, a KC-46A assigned to the 344th ARS deployed one of its new tankers to Nellis to participate in WSINT 20-2. The flight crews were not part of the course but used the complex air operations to evaluate the aircraft and its systems in the robust scenarios staged for each mission.

In early May, America’s most robust joint exercise, the biennial Northern Edge once again took place in Alaska filling the vast skies with jet noise. Interoperability between all of America’s armed services is a primary objective of the exercise. This year a KC-46A flown by crews assigned to Air Force Reserve Command’s 931st Air Refueling Wing deployed to Elmendorf Air Force Base to participate in the exercise. The new tanker provided air refuelling for numerous US Air Force and US Navy jets using the boom and centreline drogue system respectively. During Northern Edge mission, aircrews set records and determined how quickly the aircraft can refuel and re-enter the battle. Many KC-46A systems were evaluated in the operational scenarios staged, including some IOT&E test points. On 9 July, Air Mobility Command officially cleared the KC-46A to limited operations and cleared the aircraft to use its centreline drogue system as per those conducted in Northern Edge.

An example of now standard tasking for the new tanker, during the final week of May, the 344th ARS provided one KC-46A to air refuel American fighter aircraft on a transatlantic flight to Europe, while a second aircraft conducted a trans-Pacific airlift mission concurrently air refuelling C-17s from McChord Air Force Base. Elsewhere, some crews deployed to Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, Michigan, to participate in Mobility Guardian 2021, Air Mobility Command’s large-scale mobility exercise. During exercise missions, aircrews used the Tactical Situational Awareness System (TSAS) flight deck display to show Blue (friendly) and Red (enemy) aircraft and threats located around the battlespace. Information was fed into the TSAS via line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight datalinks in operation on C-5, C-17 and C-130 aircraft.

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KC-46A Pegasus 17-46027 departs Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan, on 30 July 2021, after receiving cargo from the 127th Logistics Readiness Squadron. (US Air National Guard)

The US Air Force continues to train its combat-coded squadrons to the doctrine of Agile Combat Employment, dubbed ACE, and its KC-46A units are no exception. ACE alongside the Department of Defense Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept, is designed to connect sensors from all military services and is a big part of the 344th and 924th’s training and operations. Explaining, Lt Col Moores said; “Everything the squadrons do when thinking about operating the KC-46A comes with the understanding that it is going to be integrated in the JADC2 environment, and into an agile combat employment framework. There is a lot of learning to be done on what that looks like, especially in different parts of the world, but the two completely represent what we will be doing in the future. Some of our current training without being officially tasked to deploy to and remain at a specific location for months on end, is allowing us to do that. Airmen and airwomen who have only flown from a handful of airfields are now going on a week-long trip and they’re not going to a single place they’ve ever been before. They understand that’s the way it will be in the future.”

by Mark Ayton