The First Boom-Equipped Tanker For A Private Aerial Refueling Company Has Arrived

The second-hand KDC-10 now in the hands of Omega Air could blaze a trail to a much more active contractor aerial refueling marketplace.

Don Rogers

While the commercial adversary air support market is ballooning, the commercial aerial refueling market continues to expand at a remarkably slow pace. That may be about to change as the pioneering company Omega Air has just received a surplus KDC-10 tanker from the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The company already flies a couple 707 tankers and another KDC-10, but none of them are equipped with an aerial refueling boom that the USAF and many of its allies rely on. Instead, they exclusively have the hose and drogue arrangement used by the Navy and Marine Corps. This new aircraft puts Omega Air in the position to blaze a trail when it comes to finally bringing contractor refueling support to the USAF and other allies. 

Omega Air stated the following in a press release:

The new aircraft, T-264, to be registered as N264DE going forward, was manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, modified into a boom-equipped aerial refueling tanker and began to serve as part of the RNLAF fleet in 1995. It is already certified to refuel receptacle aircraft such as the A-10, B-1B, B-52H, C-17, E-3, E-8C, F-15C/D/E, F-16A-D, F-16F, F-16I, F-35A, KC-10, KC-135R/T, RC-135 V, RC-135 S, RC-135 U, and MC-130.

Omega entered into an agreement to purchase two of the RNLAF KDC-10 aircraft this fall. The second of the two purchased KDC-10 tankers will arrive separately, and will be added to the Omega fleet shortly after delivery. The addition of these KDC-10 tankers, along with their boom capability, will give Omega the capability to potentially refuel every operative type of aircraft in U.S. military inventory.

Sebastian Barheier/wikicommons

While the Navy and Marines have been using Omega Air for contractor tanking support for nearly two decades, the Air Force is still figuring out exactly how it wants to approach what could be a major seachange for the service—one that has hundreds of tankers in its fleet. A substantial contract tender for commercial tanking support has been forthcoming from USAF for some time now, but as of today, it is still being defined. Yet nobody actually has an aircraft that can do the job today. Now that Omega has such a capability, maybe some risk reduction work can be done cooperatively that will allow the Air Force to focus their requirements and become a bit more open to the concept overall.

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Part of the draft requirements the Air Force has put together for a still to be released tanker contract tender. This part shows the basic aircraft requirements.

USAF

I have written extensively over the years about how the Air Force could shift a substantial amount of its non-combat aerial refueling burden over to contractors, freeing up funds to buy new tankers with enhanced capabilities for its own fleet and investing other dollars elsewhere. Some big cultural and budgetary obstacles to getting this done exist, but another issue is that there just aren't a ton of surplus boom-equipped tankers available on the second-hand market, with only 14 KC-135Rs currently being stored at the Defense Department's AMARG boneyard in Arizona and their material state and general availability is unknown. Still, this too will slowly change in the coming years as old tankers in frontline service begin to step aside for new ones. 

For instance, Singapore just retired its KC-135R fleet, and other operators, like France, will follow suit, eventually. Beyond that, as the KC-46 finally comes online, USAF KC-135R tankers—nearly 400 are currently in service—will leave the force, some of which have remarkably low hours for their age. Omega Air is extremely capable of keeping older airframes flying reliably and has done so even with airframes with much older engines than those found on the KC-135R. 

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KC-135Rs serve as the backbone of the USAF's tanker force, but they are six decades old. 

In addition, the KC-10 Extender was slated to begin to be slowly phased out beginning this year, but those plans have been put aside, mainly due to ongoing issues with Boeing's KC-46 Pegasus. Still, quickly eliminating the entire fleet as part of a budget realignment has been a possibility before, and it could be again as soon as next year. The KC-10 force represents a fleet of 58 airframes that could go a long way in fulfilling private air contractors' potential future needs. I would also allow them to handle long-range "tanker drags" and cargo-hauling missions better than surplus KC-135Rs. The KC-10s are also already equipped with both an internal hose and drogue system in addition to a boom system and they can be refueled themselves inflight, something only a tiny handful of KC-135s are capable of. You can read all about that here

 Interestingly enough, the price to operate each aircraft isn't that different. Military.com wrote the following in 2018:

It costs roughly the same to fly the KC-10 and the KC-135: $19,612 per flight hour for the KC-10, and $21,161 per hour for the KC-135, according to the Air Force's 2016 operational cost datasheet.

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KC-10A Extender.

The KC-10s, which were largely acquired in the 1980s, are also far newer aircraft than the KC-135s, which were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. DC-10s still fly around the globe for cargo carriers, while the KC-135s are niche military airframes and their 707s cousins have all but disappeared from the air entirely. 

Meanwhile, Israel's IAI has a 767 tanker conversion that is far cheaper than purchasing a new aircraft and Airbus and Lockheed have joined forces with the eye on disrupting the U.S. tanker marketplace with Airbus's KC-30 Multi-Role Tanker Transport that is based on the A330. As KC-46 delays continue to mount, the far more elastic contractor option, which could include new-build KC-30s flown by contractors, will increasingly look more attractive. 

Once Omega Air gets its fleet of two boom-equipped KDC-10s spun-up, it will be interesting to see the impact they make on the still budding industry and the USAF's perceptions of it. If they can deliver a reliable and safe product for less than what the Air Force currently pays, and all without having to actually own and maintain fleets of aircraft directly, and everything else that goes along with it, the arrival of Omega's KDC-10 could mark a historic turning point in the Air Force's 60 year history of jet age aerial refueling. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com