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First details emerge of KC-30A’s role in Cope North

written by Adam Thorn | March 2, 2021
RAAF KC-30A multi-role tanker transport
US Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska fly alongside a RAAF KC-30A multi-role tanker transport from No. 33 Squadron during Exercise Cope North 2021 in Guam.

One of Australia’s KC-30A MRTT aircraft practised refuelling F-16 Fighting Falcons above the western Pacific Ocean when it was deployed as part of Exercise Cope North last month, Defence has revealed.

The aircraft, along with an E-7A Wedgetail and 170 personnel, were deployed to take part in the long-standing exercise in Guam, along with participants from the US and Japan. This year, the objective was responding to a natural disaster occurring on a fictitious island in the Indo-Pacific region.

No. 33 Squadron pilot and detachment commander Flight Lieutenant William Dunn said, “We were one of four tankers providing an airborne refuelling capability to the exercise.

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“The flying was fantastic and we were lucky enough to support the US F-35A push to Palau.

“We also had two junior air refuelling operators who achieved their day fighter boom qualification and one aircrew member who achieved his B Category KC-30A captain categorisation.

“The KC-30A is usually one of the first jets to enter the airspace and one of the last to leave.

“We’d expect to be airborne for approximately four hours, refuel a combination of US F-35A Lightning IIs, F/A-18 Hornets, F-16 Fighting Falcons and EA-18G Growlers, and offload around 45,000 litres of fuel.

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“We’d also expect to hold contingency fuel for any issues that the fighters may have during the sortie or on recovery to Andersen Air Force Base.

“Once all fighters and other air assets are safely on their way home, we’ll recover as well, and when we’re back on the ground, our maintainers refuel the aircraft, conduct any maintenance required and have the tanker ready to launch for the next wave.”

The one RAAF KC-30A MRTT involved, Willowbank, flew a total of 17 missions and offloaded 318,000 litres of fuel to US fighter aircraft.

“When it comes to EAC, Cope North gives our KC-30As the opportunity to integrate with the US on a large scale, bringing a highly effective air-to-air refuelling capability along with mission flexibility and significant force extension across the airspace,” FLTLT Dunn said.

“33 Squadron’s ongoing participation in combined exercises like this helps us better understand our regional partners’ needs, their methodologies, and how we can more seamlessly integrate with them to achieve the desired effects.”

This is the 11th time Australia has joined Cope North, which concluded on 19 February and was held Andersen Air Force Base.

Group Captain Nathan Christie, the Australian Commander for Cope North, said more than 2,000 military personnel and approximately 95 aircraft took part in total.

Australia currently has a fleet six KC-30A MRTTs, which are based at RAAF Base Amberley and operated by No. 33 Squadron. The aircraft is a heavily modified Airbus A330 airliner that enables air-to-air refuelling and strategic air lifts.

The KC-30A MRTT is fitted with two forms of air-to-air refuelling systems: an advanced refuelling boom system mounted on the tail of the aircraft and a pair of all-electric refuelling pods under each wing.

These systems are controlled by an air refuelling operator in the cockpit, who can view refuelling on 2D and 3D screens. The KC-30A can carry a fuel load of more than 100 tonnes and transfer part of that load to compatible aircraft.

The KC-30A MRTT can remain 1,800 kilometres from its home base with 50 tonnes of fuel available to offload for up to four hours. In its transport role, the KC-30A is capable of carrying 270 passengers.

It comes with under-floor cargo compartments that can accommodate 34,000 kilograms of military and civilian cargo pallets and containers.

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