In a groundbreaking display of aerial ingenuity, the United States Air Force recently achieved a historic milestone in aviation by executing a reverse air refueling operation between a C-5M Super Galaxy and a KC-10 Extender. This remarkable maneuver took place over the skies of Northern California and Oregon on December 12, 2023, serving as a pivotal Proof of Concept (PoC) aimed at enhancing readiness and preventing potential losses of tanker aircraft in emergencies.
The innovative strategy employed by the US Air Force involved the use of a C-5M Super Galaxy, typically a heavy transport aircraft, as a refueling source for the KC-10 Extender, a role reversal that defied conventional norms in aerial refueling. Rather than the typical procedure of the tanker providing fuel to other aircraft, the C-5M functioned as a colossal “floating gas station,” offloading approximately 23,500 pounds of fuel in just 30 minutes to the KC-10.
This groundbreaking demonstration, although not the first instance of reverse air refueling capability in KC-10s and KC-135s, marked the inaugural attempt at siphoning fuel from the C-5M Super Galaxy back into the tanker, showcasing the potential for maintaining operational continuity and efficiency in critical scenarios.
Tanker aircraft stand as indispensable force multipliers, pivotal in sustaining combat missions. The scarcity or abundance of these assets significantly impacts mission sustainability. Major Justin Wilson, the 22nd Airlift Squadron chief of standards and evaluations and a C-5M evaluator pilot, emphasized the strategic advantage of utilizing a C-5 as a refueling platform, enabling more tankers to be available for offloading to fighter or mobility aircraft without depleting a tanker from its mission.
Wilson highlighted the potential significance of this breakthrough, stating, “This allows more tanker aircraft in the theatre and extends their range or orbit time.”
However, this groundbreaking maneuver is not without its challenges. Wilson pointed out the complexities involved, particularly in the aircraft’s altered flight characteristics as its weight diminishes during the reverse air refueling process. Flight engineers played a critical role in adapting to this unconventional procedure, making necessary amendments to standard checklists and configuring the fuel panel to facilitate the transfer of fuel from the C-5M to the KC-10.
The implications of this successful test extend beyond the immediate operation. The data gathered during this pioneering sortie is poised to pave the way for future enhancements in tanker aircraft’s range and airborne duration, ultimately bolstering their availability for supporting other essential assets.
Despite its potential, reverse air refueling remains an emergency measure, requiring continuous monitoring of the aircraft’s center of gravity and certification for execution. In specific emergency conditions, certain certified aircraft like the KC-135s possess the capability to perform reverse refueling with designated large receivers.
The successful execution of reverse air refueling by the US Air Force marks a transformative leap in aerial refueling techniques, potentially reshaping the dynamics of military missions by enhancing operational flexibility and extending aircraft endurance, ensuring readiness in critical situations.