Last May, a KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing [ARW] of the United States Air Force [USAF] set an endurance record with a flight lasting just over 24 hours. The objective of Air Mobility Command [AMC] was to collect data on the feasibility as well as the potential risks and benefits of such a mission, which mobilized six pilots and three boom operators.
But it’s a completely different experience that the AMC has just carried out, with a KC-46A from the 22nd ARW. In July, he had announced his intention to reduce the crews of his tanker planes, by eliminating the position of co-pilot. This aroused many criticisms, expressed via social networks.
Indeed, for its detractors, such a decision could only be detrimental to flight safety, especially since the KC-46A still suffers from major design flaws. [notamment au niveau de du « Remote Vision System », c’est à dire le système de caméras permettant de contrôler avec précision les opérations de ravitaillement en vol, nldr]which also weighs on Boeing’s accounts.
But that argument has since been brushed aside by General Mike Minihan, the head of the AMC. “I don’t think fighter pilots are the only ones who have the right to fly a plane solo,” he said at the Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September.
Hence the two test flights carried out on October 25, with a crew reduced to a pilot and an in-flight refueling operator aboard a KC-46A Pegasus. However, an instructor pilot also took place on board the aircraft… but as an observer.
In detail, the first flight consisted of a kind of “handling” of the KC-46A with such a configuration. Then, after a debriefing, it was immediately followed by a second, with a “complete mission profile”, ie with in-flight refueling.
Note that another “Pegasus”, with a complete crew, was involved in this experiment, in order to provide assistance if necessary.
“This mission was largely prepared with flight simulators. […] Each phase of the evaluation was carefully considered, taking into account crew safety, aircraft capabilities and federal aviation standards. This allowed us to do an in-depth analysis of the risks and obstacles to be overcome and to see how they could be mitigated,” commented Colonel Nate Vogel, the commander of the 22nd ARW.
For the AMC, reducing the crew of its tanker planes would make it possible to limit human losses in the event of a conflict, since this type of aircraft is considered to be among the most vulnerable to enemy missiles. At least that was one of the arguments put forward last July. Another is that such a configuration would make it possible to gain flexibility and increase the frequency of outings if needed over 24 hours. And, incidentally, it would address the chronic shortage of pilots within the USAF…
However, this concept of reduced crew could apply to other aircraft implemented by the AMC. Starting with the C-130J Hercules, for which an artificial intelligence algorithm – called “Merlin Pilot” – is envisaged to replace the co-pilot.
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For the first time, the US Air Force flew a KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft without a co-pilot – Zone Militaire
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