Airbus and the French Directorate General of Armament (DGA) have successfully achieved the first helicopter flight refueling test of the A400M Atlas transport aircraft with an H225M Caracal. A proximity test with the upcoming H160 Guépard was also conclusive.
The ability to refuel helicopters mid-air is one of the most anticipated tactical capabilities of the A400M for the French military. With multiple helicopters deployed in external operations, it currently has to rely on the capabilities of its allies, mainly the United States Air Force. The task is relatively complex as it requires the tanker to fly at the lowest possible speed while the helicopter is close to its top speed and this for several minutes.
While the A400M was initially expected to take on this role as soon as it entered service, it appeared throughout development that the wake turbulence it generated was currently too important to safely refuel helicopters in flight. To address that problem, it was decided to order two KC-130J Super Hercules, the same tankers used by the USAF. The first one was delivered on September 19, 2019, and both are expected to be operational in 2020.
But the problem might prove temporary, as the A400M managed a total of 51 “dry contacts” (without oil transfer) with an H225M Caracal at a speed of less than 200 km/h, in altitudes ranging from 1,000 feet to 10,000 feet (305 and 3,500 meters). The next step will be to conduct a “wet contact” (with fuel) before the end of the year, with an expected certification no earlier than 2021.
The DGA also took the opportunity to start proximity flights between the A400M and another helicopter, the Airbus H160, which proved successful. The military variant of the aircraft was chosen as the new multirole helicopter for the French armed forces, under the name H160M “Guépard”. With the civilian version expected to enter the market in 2020, France will have to wait until 2023 for the maiden flight of the H160M prototype.
The A400M is already certified to refuel several fighter jets, namely the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Panavia Tornado, and the Boeing F/A-18, as well as other tankers such as the C295, the C-130, and even another A400M for buddy refueling. It can be converted into a tanker without the need for a specific version of the aircraft, and can carry up to 50.8 tons of fuel in the wings and the center wing box, without reducing cargo capacity.
Two additional cargo tanks can also be installed, providing an additional fuel carrying capacity of 5.7 tons each. The fuel transported in these additional tanks may be different from that contained in the main tanks, allowing the A400M to supply different types of aircraft during the same flight.
For now, 174 A400M airlifters were ordered, with 84 already in service. Outside of the partner countries of the program, namely Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, and Turkey that total 170 orders, the remaining four were acquired by Malaysia.