Airbus has successfully conducted a major air-to-air refuelling campaign for its next-generation A400M tanker involving two French Air Force H225M helicopters.
Airbus' H225M is one of the few helicopters in the world capable of in-flight refuelling, extending its standard 700 nautical mile range by up to 10 hours flight time.
The flight tests involved day and night operations over the west coast of France flying at altitudes of between 1,000 ft and 10,000 ft and flight speeds as low as 105 knots.
During those flights, a total of 81 wet contacts and transfers of 6.5 tonnes of fuel were achieved, which included simultaneous refuelling of two helicopters for the first time. The tests confirmed the positive results of the dry and wet contact operations conducted in 2019 and 2020.
Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, transferring fuel from a tanker to a helicopter is no easy task, which is why it needs to be conducted at low altitudes and speeds. The fuel hose or pipe also needs be as far away as possible from the helicopter's rotor blades.
Airbus Defence and Space aims to achieve full helicopter air-to-air refuelling certification for the A400M later this year, making it one of the few tanker aircraft in the world able to perform such an operation. The A400M is able refuel the entire range of probe-equipped military aircraft at their preferred speeds and altitudes.
Helicopter air-to-air refuelling is a unique military capability and is key for Special Forces operations, involving aircraft with different flight profiles and sharing a very limited common flight envelope, requiring close formation flying patterns at low altitudes and night-time conditions.
For Special Forces, the ability to refuel in the air can mean the difference between mission failure and success. In flight refueling extends the range and endurance of the helicopter so that it can operate for longer periods in the air, which is a major determining factor in establishing air supremacy.
The A400M is certified as standard to be quickly configured as a tanker.
Carrying up to 50.8 tonnes of fuel in its wings and centre wing box, without compromising any cargo hold area, two additional cargo hold tanks can also be installed, providing an additional 5.7 tonnes of fuel each.
The separate cargo-hold tanks allows for the use of different fuel types, enabling the A400M to cater for the needs of different types of receiver aircraft.
As a tanker, the A400M has already demonstrated its ability to refuel fighter jet receivers such as Eurofighter, Rafale, Tornado or F/A-18 at their preferred speeds and altitudes, and is also able to refuel other large aircraft such as another A400M for buddy refuelling, C295 or C-130 transport aircraft.