The U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command (AMC) has flight tested a Boeing [BA] KC-46A Pegasus tanker without a co-pilot to verify the aircraft is able to fly with a limited aircrew in ad hoc high-need combat missions against China or Russia.
“At the direction of AMC commander, Gen. Mike Minihan, the 22nd Air Refueling Wing accomplished a KC-46A Pegasus mission without a copilot Oct. 25 to validate procedures for operating with a limited aircrew for certain potential high-end combat scenarios,” AMC said.
“This employment concept allows the KC-46 to complete its primary mission with a reduced crew complement when needed to rapidly launch aircraft with threats inbound or extend long-range operations in the air with offset crews,” the command said. “The mission was part of AMC’s broader exploration of tactics, techniques and procedures that address the unique stresses that would come with a high-end, peer-competitor fight.”
The KC-46A normally has a pilot, co-pilot, and a boom operator, as well as other personnel for longer flights and aeromedical evacuation missions.
It seems unclear how having fewer personnel aboard the KC-46A during combat missions would help accomplish those missions. Whether the Air Force may resort to operating the KC-46A without a co-pilot due to the service’s pilot shortage also seems uncertain.
AMC said that the Oct. 25 flights at the Utah Test and Training Range included two sorties with just a pilot and boom operator–the first a pattern sortie and the second an aerial refueling sortie.
“The boom operator was co-located in the cockpit with the pilot, except when performing boom operations and a second instructor pilot was on board throughout the entire mission to serve as a safety observer,” AMC said.
In May, a KC-46A from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell AFB, Kan., flew more than 24 hours straight–the longest mission in the history of Air Mobility Command (AMC), according to the Air Force (Defense Daily, Oct. 28). During the more than 9,000-mile journey, rotating pilots caught sleep every few hours, as the aircraft did dry refueling runs with another KC-46A, refueled four U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and was refueled by another KC-46A from McConnell, the Air Force said.
KC-46A night refueling–important for special operations missions–is still limited for the tanker, although it is able to perform night refueling with both planes alight, per AMC. The tanker is unable to do night vision goggle refueling “with complete blackout,” the command has said. “The LWIR [Long-Wave Infrared] cameras on the boom currently don’t have the fidelity required.” The Air Force plans to remedy that by installing new boom sensor cameras for the aircraft’s Remote Vision System 2.0 (RVS 2.0).
The Air Force and Boeing agreed on an RVS 2.0 redesign of the original RVS on April 2, 2020 to fix faulty RVS depth perception, a shortfall which may lead to scraping of the boom on aircraft being refueled–damage that can be especially perilous for low-observable aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35 fighters.
Unlike the KC-135 but like the KC-10, the KC-46A, a modified Boeing 767 airliner, also has a hose-and-drogue system to refuel U.S. Navy and NATO planes. The Air Force has fielded 62 KC-46As out of a planned buy of 179.
The Air Force said recently that it foresees fielding RVS 2.0 for the KC-46A in October 2025–a delay of 19 months (Defense Daily, Oct. 7). In 2020, the Air Force said that by 2023 it planned to field RVS 2.0, which is to have 4K color cameras, operator stations with larger screens, a laser ranger for refueling aircraft distance measurement and boom assistance augmented reality.