USAF conducts first reverse air refueling using C-5M Super Galaxy 

U.S. Air Force photo

The United States Air Force (USAF) achieved a milestone by successfully executing a reverse air refueling training mission with a C-5M Super Galaxy and a KC-10 Extender.  

The test flight took place on December 12, 2023, over Northern California and Oregon, and involved using the C-5M airlifter rather than another tanker to refuel the KC-10 Extender. The transport aircraft flown by the 22nd Airlift Squadron offloaded 23,500 pounds (10 metric tons) of fuel in approximately 30 minutes. 

“By using a C-5 as a huge floating gas station, it allows more tankers to be positioned for offloading to fighter or mobility aircraft, versus having to use one tanker to refuel another, which takes away a tanker asset from the mission,” said USAF Major Justin Wilson, 22nd AS chief of standards and evaluations and C-5M evaluator pilot in a press release.  

The test allowed the aircrew to gather crucial data points on this procedure. In reverse air refueling, the aircraft experiences a faster reduction in weight compared to normal flight, resulting in a distinctive flying experience. 

The mission, the first of its kind since the C-5M’s certification, offers new possibilities for air mobility and refueling strategies, providing increased operational flexibility and optimizing tanker assets for future missions. 

The C-5M Super Galaxy performing a reverse flow air refueling with the KC-10 Extender (U.S. Air Force photo)

Addressing the capacity gap in aerial refueling 

This development comes amid ongoing efforts to explore new ways of utilizing air tankers. These new methods of employment address the challenge of thin-stretched aerial refueling capacities. The USAF is currently phasing out older KC-10 and KC-135 tankers at a rate that exceeds the replacement pace of the KC-46A Pegasus, which encountered numerous technical problems since its first delivery in 2019. This led to a capacity gap in aerial refueling capacity. 

Multiple voices have suggested the use of private contractors to address this gap, including the former commander of the US Transportation Command, General Stephen R. Lyons, who said the aerial-refueling fleet was “exceeding the red line.” 

In early November 2023, the USAF completed the first commercial air-to-air refueling of F-16 fighters en route to Singapore using a KDC‐10 tanker aircraft owned by Omega Aerial Refueling Services. 

“If we can use commercial air refueling to cover the point A to point B movements for exercise participation across unit readiness training, then it frees up our warfighter tanker fleet to be ready to respond for emerging contingency requirements,” Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Holtman, Pacific Air Forces air mobility operations chief, commented at the time. 

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