Airbus refueled a Portuguese F-16 in flight using a fully automated procedure. It is the world’s first automated in-flight aircraft refueling, according to the manufacturer.

The flight test campaign, carried out earlier in 2020 over the Atlantic Ocean, involved an A330 MRTT tanker test aircraft equipped with the Airbus “A3R” system, and an F-16 fighter jet from the Portuguese Air Force acting as a receiver. "The campaign totaled 45 hours of flight tests and 120 dry contacts with the A3R system. The certification phase will begin in 2021," said Airbus in a press release.

With this new system, the role of the air refueling operator (ARO) is reduced to monitoring the operation rather than carrying it out.

“Once the system is activated by the ARO, the A3R flies the boom automatically and keeps the alignment between the boom tip and the receiver receptacle with an accuracy of a couple of centimeters; the proper alignment and the receiver stability is checked in real-time to keep a safe distance between the boom and the receiver and also to determine the optimum moment to extend the telescopic beam to achieve the connection with the receiver. At this point, the fuel transfer is initiated to fill up the receiver aircraft and once completed and the disconnection is commanded, the boom is cleared away from the receiver by retracting the telescopic beam and flying the boom away to keep a safe separation distance.”

The A330 MRTT is derived from the A330 commercial airliner, serving as a tanker and transport with multi-role capability. Selected by a dozen air forces around the world, it is already operating in seven of them. It comes as a direct competitor to Boeing KC-46 Pegasus, which has only been ordered by three air forces so far: the United States Air Force, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, and the Israeli Air Force.

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The Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker is marred by yet another technical problem. The United States Air Force has logged a third Category I deficiency, this time reporting fuel leaks.