Losses and Aviation Safety

US Navy A-7E Corsair II tanker pilot explains why air refueling at night is a challenge for a single-piloted tanker aircraft

‘When I was flying an A-7E configured with a buddy store tanking pod, the lowest I would go to catch an aircraft that badly needed fuel was 1000 feet, and believe me, that is not comfortable for either me or the receiving aircraft,’ US Navy A-7E Corsair II pilot David Tussey.

Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) is a force multiplier.

Aerial refueling allows aircraft to remain in the air for much longer than is usual, and the process can also lead to fuel and time savings during extended manned flights. As the process is inherently dangerous due to the proximity the aircraft must maintain, aerial refueling is typically reserved for military operation flights greater than 3,000 nautical miles.

Military aircraft do perform aerial refueling even at night and during bad weather.

But according to former US Navy A-7E Corsair II pilot David Tussey “the weather has to allow for a visual approach and hookup.”

He recalls on Quora; ‘When I was carrier based flying the A-7E, we would practice air refueling on every night hop, weather permitting. Every night hop.

‘It’s possible to refuel under bad weather conditions, but they can’t be too bad. There has to be enough visibility to visually connect with the tanker. I’ve been a tanker when we were operating under bad weather, and you have to get down low enough to be clear of clouds.

‘When I was flying an A-7E configured with a buddy store tanking pod, the lowest I would go to catch an aircraft that badly needed fuel — typically after 2–3 attempts to land on the carrier — was 1000 feet, and believe me, that is not comfortable for either me or the receiving aircraft.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-7E Corsair II VA-86 Sidewinders, AJ400 / 159292 / 1977

‘Usually this occurred at night when I was flying an A-7 configured as a tanker. You orbit overhead the carrier and wait to be called into action.

‘Often you’re told to “hawk the ball”, meaning if the next plane which is already on final — if he doesn’t get aboard, then he will be sent to you for refueling. This is a challenging mission. You have to maneuver yourself to be at the 11 or 1 o’clock position from the receiving aircraft as he comes off the bolter or waveoff. The drogue has to be extended and the fuel system set to transfer. It’s a lot in a single-piloted aircraft. And typically that other pilot is a bit rattled, and you need to be super relaxed in your radio voice.’

Tussey continues;

‘Example (and for some reason it’s usually at about 2 am in the morning, black as the ace of spades):

‘Starfighter 101: “Starfighter 101, Phantom ball, trick or treat” (meaning you either land or you go tank)

Landing Signal Officer (LSO): “Waveoff, foul deck”

‘Carrier Approach Control (CATCC): “Starfighter 101 your signal is Texaco. Champ 402 is overhead at 1500 feet.”

‘Starfighter 101: (a bit stressed) “Roger. Champ, I’ll need a minimum of 2000 lbs.”

‘Champ 402 (me, in my best Chuck Yeager WV drawl): “Starfighter, I’m at your 11 o’clock at 1500′. The drogue is out and you’re cleared in. I’ll pass you 2500 lbs and then we’ll meet up for a cheesburger over midrats. Cleared in.”

‘Starfighter 101: (much more relaxed) “Roger.”

‘Once the Starfighter Phantom is connected, and I’m successfully passing gas, I’ll start a turn back to the downwind leg of the instrument landing pattern and descend to 1200′, so when we’re done, he’s right back into the instrument circuit where he should be. I climb up and out of the way. All at night over the ocean, not a star to be seen.

‘One small success. I smile.

‘Champ 402: “Approach, Champ 402 is dry. Requesting vector to downwind.” And then you, the tanker, have to land, and remember, you’ve given away almost all your fuel, so gotta be spot on!’

Tussey concludes;

‘I do think the next generation of drones and aircraft will be able to refuel inflight using non-visual guidance. That will be a big step, and quite interesting if the manufacturers can pull it off in really bad weather and at night, which I’m sure they will.’

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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