There is an adage that “you can never have enough airlift” but it can also be applied to air-to-air refuelling support, particularly during high tempo operations or large exercises.
This is where Omega Aerial Refueling Services (OARS), the world’s only commercial organisation capable of providing fee-for-service inflight refuelling services to military operators, comes in.
This Throwback Thursday article on commercial air refuelling service Omega first appeared in the September 2013 magazine edition of Australian Aviation. We hope you enjoy it.
The concept of commercial air refuelling services evolved out of US Department of Defense feasibility studies conducted in the late 1980s and 1990s. Ireland-based Omega Aviation Services is owned by brothers Ulick and Desmond McEvaddy, and has traded in 707 airframes and parts since 1980. Indeed, in the early 1980s the RAAF acquired two former Saudia 707s for spares in a deal Omega brokered.
Plans for the commercial refuelling operation were announced at a 1992 conference in Sydney, and after detailed design commenced in 1996 Omega teamed with BAE Systems and Tracor to convert a former Pan Am Boeing 707-321B into a tanker at BAE’s Mojave facility. That aircraft, N707AR, was subsequently certified in 2001 to refuel every US Navy and Marine Corps tactical aircraft.
Initially contracted exclusively to the US Navy on a sub-contract, OARS was established in 2004 to manage the program and to explore new business opportunities, and assumed the prime commercial USN air refuelling contract in 2007. A year earlier a second 707, a former Saudi executive aircraft, entered service, while a former Japan Air Lines DC-10-40 (N974VV) was also acquired for tanker conversion, joining the growing fleet in 2007 and entering service in 2008 as N707MQ. Unfortunately N707AR was destroyed in a takeoff accident at the US Navy’s Point Mugu flight test centre in 2011 (the NTSB attributed the accident to the failure of a mid-spar fitting).
The Omega contract is managed through the US Navy’s PMA207.5 program office, which tasks the company for a set number of flying hours per year. All US and allied requests for OARS’ services are made through and approved by that office. For foreign militaries, the program office charges per hour for the tankers’ services plus any per diem charges for the crews, while offloaded fuel is charged at then-day US government prices as if the unit had bought fuel at an airfield. Ulick McEvaddy told Australian Aviation that ballpark costs for OARS’s services run at about $14,000 per hour for the DC-10 and $9,000 for a 707.
Omega’s first non-US tanking contract was with the RAAF in 2008 when a 707 supported the deployment of 75SQN F/A-18 Hornets from Tindal to Alaska and back for a Red Flag exercise. Other international operations have included trans-Atlantic deployments of RAF Tornados from the UK to the US and Canadian CF-18 training.
Omega tankers have also been used to support delivery flights of batches of RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets from the US west coast, a High Sierra graduation exercise in 2010, and another Red Flag Alaska deployment and Exercise Bersama Shield in 2011.
“Foreign customers don’t hire us direct,” McEvaddy explained. “We’re under an FMS contract through the US Navy. But we do have a working relationship with our regular customers like the RAAF – they give us a ‘heads-up’ of a possible tasking and we can normally do a month or six weeks’ notice for a dedicated task.”
For RAAF support, formal tasking comes from Air Command via Air Combat Group, and then through the US Navy’s PMA207 office to Omega. Once the aircraft leaves the US, it becomes a US state aircraft and is required to go through all the usual diplomatic approvals.
Since commencing ops in 2001, OARS has flown more than 4,000 air-refuelling missions in 13,000 hours and 40,000 inflight connections, and has offloaded more than 70 million kilograms of fuel. “We’re doing a lot of ferries,” said McEvaddy. “They’re using us more because the USAF has such huge commitments you sometimes can’t rely on them to show up.
“The two things the customer really likes us for is flexibility and reliability – we have a 98.8 per cent dispatch reliability, which is hard work in a ‘Seven-O’,” he added. “We’ll bend over backwards to try to achieve their mission for them, and we do – that’s our raison d’etre. Our engineers have a real can-do attitude, they’re good engineers and we carry two of them with us most of the time. The engineers actually think they own the airplane – they have a real affinity for the jet. If something goes wrong and we can’t make a mission, they take it really personally.”
The OARS fleet grew in October 2011 when three former RAAF 707-338s were acquired and ferried back to the company’s facilities in the US. The aircraft – re-registered as N623RH, N624RH and N629RH to pay homage to their former RAAF serial numbers (A20-623, -624, and -629 respectively) and their former Richmond base – had been laid up for three or more years since being retired in June 2008.
Initial survey inspections on the aircraft were conducted in June 2011 followed by maintenance and flightcrew work and training that September. McEvaddy said the RAAF aircraft were “in excellent condition”. Simulator training for the ferry crews was conducted on the former RAAF 707 simulator which was still at Richmond at the time and flight tests and an FAA inspection were conducted in the week prior to departure.
N624RH, which was the final RAAF 707 to be retired, initially flew to Brunswick in Georgia where it received a major service before entering service with Omega in 2012. While it has retained its wingtip refuelling pods, it is planned to add a twin-point centreline mounted hose and drogue system and be re-engined at a later date. N624RH returned to Australia in 2012 to support the RAAF’s F/A-18 classic Hornet operational conversion graduation exercise High Sierra in Townsville.
N629RH was flown to Omega’s San Antonio home base in Texas where it received a major service and that aircraft is currently being re-wired and fitted with the centreline refuelling system. It is expected to enter service later this year or in early 2014. N623RH was placed in storage at Victorville in California, but it is planned that after a major service this aircraft will be the first of the three to be re-engined with P&W JT8D-200 engines which are common to the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series and will re-enter service with Omega in 2015.
Omega also brokered the sale of the RAAF’s former 707 simulator, which was located at Richmond’s 285SQN, to the Pan Am Academy. The sim was removed with the assistance of CAE Australia in late 2011 and was transported by ship to the US where it was installed at the Pan Am facility at Henderson in Las Vegas where it is expected to be certified and operational by early 2014.
The re-engine program is the same as that planned for the USAF’s fleet of 707-based E-8C Joint STARS surveillance aircraft by Omega subsidiary Seven-Q-Seven, under contract to Northrop Grumman. A non-AAR-equipped 707 and three E-8Cs have been modified and extensively test flown with the new engines and results have been positive, but ongoing funding constraints in the US have seen momentum on the E-8 program stall.
“We own the supplementary type certificate for the re-engine program,” McEvaddy told AA. “We’d like to do our own 707s sooner, but we’re busy trying to get Joint STARS back on track and we’re working on a B-52 option right now as well.”
McEvaddy said while the JT8D-200 has slightly higher fuel consumption than the higher bypass CFM56 which has been retro-fitted to most of the USAF KC-135R/T fleet, it is a much lower drag engine and actually provides better economy in real-world use.
The new engines are approximately the same weight and have the same centre of gravity as the original P&W TF33s, but provide 20 per cent more thrust, are Stage 4 noise compliant, and consume 30 per cent less fuel than the older engines.
“The re-engine has received FAA and military certification,” he added. “The change has allowed the Joint STARS to climb to optimum altitude in just 20 minutes instead of 4.5 hours – that’s how we get our great economy because we’re at altitude so much faster.”
For the B-52 concept, McEvaddy says the JT8Ds would slot right into the B-52’s twin podded TF33 arrangement with just minor fairing and thrust reverser changes, and each engine provides 21,000lb of thrust versus the current 17,000lb.
With three, soon to be four aircraft on strength, Omega plans to regenerate N623RH and a former Romanian government 707 in storage to add to its fleet. The company sees no reason to diverge from the 707 into other types in its business model. “We’ve got 30 years dealing with 707s, so we know the aircraft,” said McEvaddy. “We developed the re-engine program to reduce fuel burn and we have a fairly complete package of what we can do to improve the 707.”
Omega also foresees a growing market for its services, both for the current hose and drogue-equipped aircraft, and possibly for boom-equipped tankers in the future. “We will expand – we’re currently looking at Asia as an expanding market,” said McEvaddy. “There’s quite a number of countries there that are interested in tanking such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea – they don’t have their own (large) tankers. But we’re also focusing on Europe. With many European governments bankrupt, the chances of them getting new tankers are slim, and I think there’ll be a shortfall of air-to-air refuelling. They couldn’t have done the Libyan campaign without American tankers.
“We’ve also been approached several times and we’ve determined there’s a market need for booms. We have a design we’re working on – it’s a new boom, one that works,” he added, taking a veiled swipe at the delayed Airbus A330MRTT’s boom. “We’ve had a look at the old design and we’ve adapted what already works so we can keep it simple. We like simple and reliable things.”
But not so simple as to not be at the leading edge of refuelling technology, with Omega contracted to perform inflight refuelling trials with the US Navy’s unmanned X-47B UCAS later this year. “In 2006 we did the first autonomous refuelling using an F/A-18 as a surrogate in a joint venture between DARPA and ourselves,” said McEvaddy. “That was successful and we’ve been developing the technology over that period. That’s one of the reasons we’re going over to a centreline system on the other aircraft, for stability for the UCAS. We’re the primary tanker on the X-47 at the moment and we’ll need a centreline for that.”
As for future work with the RAAF?
Ever since the KC-30 was ordered, some industry commentators have consistently pointed out that five KC‑30s was probably a bare minimum for the RAAF to be able to support operations involving fast jets and force multipliers such as the Wedgetail AEW&C, or two concurrent long-distance deployments, so Omega may still be well placed to offer a surge capability should the need arise.
When asked, McEvaddy was coy about possible future opportunities with the RAAF. But with ongoing delays to the KC-30A’s full operational capability due to development problems with the boom, and previously reported spares and reliability issues with its hose and drogue refuelling pods, the astute Irishman was obviously keen to keep RAAF officials apprised of Omega’s capabilities and availability.
VIDEO: The Omega KDC-10 taking off, from Omega Air Refuelling’s Facebook page.
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 magazine edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories like this, subscribe here.