U.S. Air Force Aircraft Complete First Commercial Air Refueling

A Metrea-owned KC-135R tanker refuels a U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft for the first time. 

Credit: Metrea Strategic Mobility

A privately owned Boeing KC-135R refueled two U.S. Air Force aircraft in late June, marking the service’s first air-to-air refueling from a commercial service provider. 

The Metrea Strategic Mobility-owned tanker, which was acquired from the Republic of Singapore Air Force, offloaded nearly 90,000 lb. of fuel during 13 boom contacts with an RC-135 and E-3 during Exercise Resolute Hunter between June 23-29. 

“We look forward to supporting more U.S. Air Force refueling requirements as well as increasing demand from allies and partners,” said Ty Thomas, head of Metrea’s Air and Space Group. 

Naval Air Systems Command has purchased commercial air refueling services for more than two decades, starting with tanker derivatives of Boeing 707s and a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 owned by Omega Air Refueling. Metrea then entered the market as a competitor in 2021, and has provided hundreds of refueling contacts with Navy aircraft, including the first commercial boom refueling service to a Navy Boeing P-8 earlier this year. 

But the U.S. Air Force has traditionally relied on Air Mobility Command (AMC)’s fleet of boom equipped tankers, including KC-135s, KC-10s and Boeing KC-46s.

Metrea is trying to expand the market by directly supporting operational units assigned to Air Combat Command and the Air Force’s regional commands around the world, Thomas told Aviation Week in an interview at the Royal International Air Tattoo. 

AMC’s tanker fleet does not have the capacity to meet all requests by operational units for air refueling services, Thomas said. To illustrate the impact on operations, Thomas described a fictional example of six Lockheed Martin F-22s deploying from Virginia to Nevada for a Red Flag exercise. If AMC is unable to provide air refueling services, the aircraft fly across the country, making several stops on the ground for refueling instead. In some cases, technical faults develop during a cross-country flight that forces one or more aircraft to remain on the ground, waiting for an inspection or spare parts. 

“Just because you don’t have a tanker to get you from Langley directly to Nellis, you don’t have a mission-ready F-22,” Thomas said. 

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.