US Air Force carries out KC-46 tanker flights without a co-pilot

Airman 1st Class Brenden Beezley

Are single-pilot tanker operations coming to the US Air Force? The McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas announced it has completed flights of a Boeing KC-46A Pegasus without a co-pilot, paving the way for limited crew operations in certain scenarios. 

The KC-46A’s crew usually consists of a pilot, co-pilot and boom operator. On October 25, 2022, the 22nd Air Refueling Wing flew a Pegasus on two sorties with only a single pilot and a boom operator.  

The USAF said in a statement published on October 28, 2022, that such operations would “allow 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”. 

Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, said achieving victory required taking a hard look at the tools at their disposal. “The dynamics of the future operating environment require us to think in ways we might not usually think.” 

What did the sorties consist of? 

The two sorties were performed within military airspace, the McConnell Air Force Base explained in its statement. The mission was practiced extensively in flight simulators beforehand.    

In its first sortie, the KC-46 flew only a traffic pattern followed by a debrief and assessment.  

The second sortie was performed immediately afterwards and consisted of a full mission profile, including ground operations, aerial refueling rendezvous, air refueling on-load and offload, among others. 

During the mission, the boom operator sat in the cockpit with the pilot, except when performing boom operations. A second instructor pilot was also on board, taking the role of safety observer. In addition, a second KC-46 with a full crew followed the aircraft with limited crew to provide assistance by radio, if needed.  


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