Automated air refueling may extend future reach

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Emily F. Alley
  • 190th ARW Public Affairs
Flying high and moving fast, boom operators can still look down and see a pilot when they refuel a plane. Eventually, however, the cabin may be empty.

Forbes Field was selected to host the first group of tests for automated air refueling. After the first set of tests concluded, the engineers could have gone somewhere else - other bases would have been happy to host them. But they chose to come back to Forbes.

The 190th Air Refueling Wing was first selected largely because of its location - near Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., but with less air traffic than Edwards AFB, Calif. Engineers complimented the wing's willingness to innovate and for the outstanding effort by the Maintenance Squadron, specifically mentioning Tech. Sgt. Jason Piper and Tech. Sgt. David Powelson from the 190th Avionics shop as part of their reason for returning for the second round of testing.

"We flew eight days in a row. Our guys were always there," Maj. Jeff Warrender, a 190th ARW pilot who participated in the testing, said of maintenance and the avionics shop.

"They were just superb, actually."

By early December, they had performed almost 20 sorties, or test runs, using the equipment. The flights provided ample opportunity for engineers to improve the automated refueling system. A manned Learjet, embedded with GPS, stood in for an autonomous aircraft. Representatives from the Air Force Research Lab, Wright-Patterson AFB, Tinker AFB and even Navy testers participated in the testing. Guest boom operators from Edwards AFB performed the refueling.

Once all testing is completed, the avionics equipment can be installed in other bombers, fighters and built into future generations of aircraft. Warrender suspects, however, the technology won't be commonly available until after he retires. Lieutenant Col. Lee Grunberger, who helped coordinate the testing, suggested the new system blurs the distinction between traditionally piloted and autonomous aircraft. Several aircraft could fly in a tight formation, even in turbulence, in what Grunberger calls "station keeping." Pilots can use the avionics system to keep in place while they take a break.

"It's a safety feature," described Grunberger. "The pilot can let go, and it relieves fatigue. Planes can be manned or unmanned - it's optional."

Warrender agrees. During longer flights, the ones that may necessitate air refueling, pilots may become exhausted. Automated air refueling will extend not only the range of the plane, but of the pilot.