Gary Parsons & Mike Kerr
You may think that an Air Force's air-to-air refuelling resource would be exclusively utilised by its own aircraft, but in today's international era of co-operation and multi-national training this is definitely not the case. Just such an example was demonstrated mid-February when f4 was invited to join the crew of a 216 Squadron TriStar, tasked with replenishing a batch of Mirage fighters of the Armee de l'Air over France. Such an opportunity rarely presents itself, so your intrepid scribes had very little hesitation in gratefully accepting!
Today, air-to-air refuelling is a standard procedure that has played a pivotal part in all recent conflicts. Without it, long range activities of the type carried out by the RAF in the Falklands, the Gulf and the Balkans would have been impossible. In the Gulf War of 1991, RAF Victor, VC10 and TriStar tankers provided round-the-clock refuelling support to Allied air forces, while aircraft from Brize Norton performed similarly for NATO during the Kosovo operation this year.
A beautiful winter's morning at Brize Norton provided a chance to see General Pinochet's Boeing 707 awaiting the outcome of the Home Secretary's decision on the ailing dictator, although no photography was allowed. Our TriStar, ZD953, was one of no less than five residing on Brize's vast acres of concrete that morning, an event unusual in itself given 216's heavy commitments to overseas operations. Call-sign was 'Lion 320', the significance of what was never determined, but it does seem that all of Brize's squadrons are starting to use the prefix.
Heading out over the south coast with 110 tonnes of fuel on board, the view from 20,000 feet was superb, with hardly a wisp of cloud to be seen. Within minutes the coast of Brittany beckoned, as we headed to our rendezvous in the Chateaudun region, approximately 110 miles south-west of Paris. A race-track pattern some fifty miles long was quickly settled into, before the first trade of the day, four Mirage F1Cs of EC02.030. Refusing to play ball, they hung back frustratingly, just far enough back for the distortions in the perspex windows to become too much. We have all looked out of the window of an airliner on our way to Lanzarote or other such sunny destinations, but it is not until you try a telephoto lens that you realise just how dirty, scratched and distorted they are. Imagine smearing your lens with Vaseline, rubbing it with sandpaper and covering the end with clingfilm...that should give you a better idea. Each window also has a tint of its own...some blue, some green. But, that's not to say some great pictures can be had - you just need to work within the optical limitations thrown in the way. Anything longer than 135mm is pointless, as the distortions become too apparent - 70mm is best. Only use the centre of the window, and only at right angles to the glass. Moving the camera gently while viewing the subject will highlight any distortions, as the ripples will become quite obvious as they move across. All you need now is that Mirage 2000C in the right place with the sun behind you and....hey presto! Thank you Alain! (Or whatever your name was.) It later transpired that one pilot had been an RAF officer on exchange, Flt Lt Paul Watkins, currently with EC01.005 at Orange, so there had been plenty of banter between the two cockpits. These joint exercises show that Anglo/French military operations enjoy a close relationship, with five RAF pilots currently serving with the Armee and an equal number of French counterparts serving with the British forces.
After the thirsty F1s had their tanks replenished, they gathered on the port wing, departing as swiftly as they arrived. Following them were the Mirage 2000Cs of EC01.005, accompanied by a singleton 'B two-seater. Play ball they did, as 'Alain' proved, moving forward of the TriStar's main wing and never too far away, one by one feeding off the great white giant's centre-line basket. One big advantage of the TriStar over a VC10 for any aspiring photographers is that bunches of aircraft have no option but to wait their turn for the single hose, unlike the '10 which can do three at a time if necessary. With five '2000s at once, it was quite a while before they had all finished, so I guess they may have been getting a little bored and just needed to play around a wee bit!
It's amazing how warm it can be at 23,000 feet in February; we had stripped to shirtsleeves with all the action of moving from one side of the aircraft to another. A break for lunch provided some respite, a suitably topical baguette seeming most appropriate and agreeable. Five Mirage 2000Ns from EC03.004 provided the last major action of the afternoon, by now film was becoming a scarce resource, but is is difficult to restrain yourself in such a situation...you're convinced that the next shot can only get better, so you just keep blasting away, until the shadows finally fall across the fuselage, putting you into sun. A lone Mirage F1 closes the sortie, and with the sun low on the horizon a northerly course for Blighty is set. By now a weather front has pushed south, and a carpet of cumulous is spread out beneath us. Oxfordshire is dull and heavily overcast on landing, but the spirits are bright and decidedly cheerful.
Such taskings are not yet a day-to-day routine for 216 Squadron or the other Brize units, but one wonders if a new contract due to come into effect in the next few years will see much more regular international excursions for the tankers of tomorrow? As with other non-combatant parts of the service, the Ministry of Defence is looking to the private sector to provide the air-to-air refuelling service for the RAF in a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal. Six consortia have been asked to submit outline proposals to design, supply, manage, operate and fund a service to replace the RAFs existing air tanker fleet, which could be worth up to £9 billion over 20 years. In a statement to the Commons, Defence Procurement Minister Baroness Symons said:
"The Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) project is by far our largest and most innovative PFI proposal to date, and offers the opportunity to work in partnership with industry and to show that private finance can work for challenging projects of this nature. The government will ensure that the RAF operational effectiveness will be maintained, and that the project will deliver real value for money to the taxpayer. Responses to our Request for Information from industry earlier this year showed strong private sector interest in the new commercial opportunities FSTA brings. These include the management of the main operating base and using spare capacity for earning third party revenue from other users, including perhaps other allied air forces, at times when the tankers are not needed by the RAF. I look forward to industry producing innovative and well thought-out proposals. A final decision on the way ahead is planned in 2002, and FSTA could enter service as early as 2004. We will, of course, keep those likely to be affected by the decision fully informed as our thinking develops and are committed to full consultation with the Trades Unions."
The six consortia invited to submit outline proposals are led by Raytheon, Rolls-Royce, British Aerospace, Brown and Root, Serco Group with Spectrum Capital Ltd and FRA-Cobham with Thomson-CSF. Each consortia are considering a number of aircraft types as candidates for FSTA, including the Airbus A310/330, Boeing 767 and DC10. Both new and second-hand aircraft are being considered.
Personally, it will be sad to the end of the trusty TriStars and venerable VC10s, but if the windows are new, we won't complain!
Acknowledgements: We would like to extend our gratitude to the Community Relations Officer, Flt Lt David Rowe, and the crew of 'Lion 320' for their hospitality.