How Aerial Refueling is Carried Out

When conducting military operations with aircraft, there are some times in which a particular unit needs to extend its natural range and cover large distances for travel. As fuel tanks are finite in their storage, most aircraft will eventually reach a point in which they need to land and refuel. For some military aircraft, however, advanced technology has allowed for refueling to be conducted mid-flight, permitting an aircraft to continue operations without the need for a landing. While seemingly simple at face value, mid-air refueling requires high amounts of pilot skill and specialty equipment to carry out the procedure.

Generally speaking, aerial refueling refers to the operation of transporting fuel from one aircraft to another while in flight. To carry out such a procedure, the aircraft must fly close together in formation, and then a hose is attached for pumping fuel. Depending on the aircraft and its design, the probe-and-drogue and flying boom refueling systems may be used for aerial refueling. If the aircraft is already built and simply needs to be modified for aerial refueling, the probe-and-drogue refueling system is most often used. With such assemblies, a hose is attached under the wingtip or fuselage of the aircraft, and the end has a basket or drogue that permits the attachment of a retractable probe. With the probe mounted to the nose of the aircraft, refueling can then commence once a seal has been established between the probe and basket/drogue.

When an aircraft is specifically designed for aerial refueling, it may use a flying boom. With a flying boom, an operator is placed at the end of the tank so that they may insert the fueling tubes into a receptacle. Once the boom is attached and secured, the operator will then send a signal to the tanker aircraft to begin pumping. As compared to probe-and-drogue refueling systems, the flying boom has a much higher rate of flow and is more efficient for the supply of larger aircraft that need more fuel.

 With either type of aerial refueling system, aircraft can extend their range and travel longer distances without having to land. As each system has its operating altitude and flight speed requirements, pilots should always be well aware of limits before conducting procedures and should reduce and increase speeds and altitudes to accommodate the tanker aircraft. As aerial refueling is used for larger defense aircraft, those units may carry more weapons, cargo, and soldiers with a reduced payload. Furthermore, carrying out aerial refueling can protect an aircraft within a dangerous airspace as it allows for the aircraft to continue traveling without stopping. As some tankers can carry upwards of 29,000 gallons of gas and supply fuel at a rate of 900 gallons per minute, aerial refueling can be conducted very quickly and highly replenish the fuel tanks of an aircraft.

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