Murphy's Law: Aerial Contractors Thrive

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August 30, 2017: More than three years after the British RAF (Royal Air Force) retired its nine L-1011 transports (six aerial refueling tankers and three cargo transports) it has sold off all of them, despite their 30 years of military service. The L-1011s were replaced by A-330 MRTT tankers. The L-1011 tankers were still in good shape when retired and the RAF knew that they would eventually sell. Interested buyers showed up within a year of retirement but it took three years to find buyers for all of them. The last six (four tankers and two cargo models) were purchased by an American commercial operation TAS (Tempus Applied Solutions) that will put three of the L-1011s back to work as commercial aerial tankers while the other three L-1011 used for spare parts. Thus three of these aerial tankers will continue to service military aircraft but now as a contractor rather than part of an air force.

This sort of thing is nothing new and has been increasing popular since the 1990s. One of the first commercial aerial refueling services, Omega Air, used two Boeing 707s (the civilian version of the KC-135) and a converted DC-10 for aerial refueling and over a decade ago was delivering fuel at less than half of what it cost the U.S. Air Force (about $5 dollars a liter/$20 a gallon) using KC-135s and KC-10s.

TAS already supplies helicopters, UAVs and transports for the military. These are used for training, cargo and passenger transports and other tasks outside of combat zones. It has become quite common to use civilian contractors for these tasks, often using former military pilots, because it is cheaper and easier to cut back or increase use of these civilian aircraft rather than military owned and operated ones.

A growing number of countries besides Britain and the United States also outsource for some of their aerial refueling needs. They do this because the Americans, in particular, have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. For example the U.S. Navy has been using Omega since 2001, as have some foreign air forces. The navy keeps renewing the Omega contract each year, indicating satisfaction with the arrangement. The navy uses Omega a lot for training exercises or long distance movement of combat aircraft that would be a hassle to reschedule if the air force tankers were delayed because of air force refueling needs.

The U.S. Navy, which often depends on U.S. Air Force KC-135 aerial tankers to refuel its aircraft in combat zones has sometimes also found it more convenient to use a civilian firm for aerial refueling service in the United States. The air force controls all the large tankers (the navy can use some smaller aircraft, even fighters, for refueling in a pinch) and makes them available to the navy and other foreigners only when the air force has taken care of its own needs. Thus, non-air force users must sometimes wait. Omega Air allows the navy to avoid the wait by using commercial aerial tankers and many other nations are finding it useful to follow this example.

 


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