Operations

On The Ground With 'The Fuelies': How The RAF's Aircraft Are Kept Flying

At the peak of Operation Shader, around one million litres of jet fuel was being pumped into aircraft every single day.

Every few weeks, fuel tankers chartered by the Ministry of Defence sail to the Akrotiri coastline from the UK.

Each ship carries large amounts of aviation fuel - vital to keeping all jets, transport aircraft and helicopters flying.

The Maersk Raleigh was the latest ship to arrive, carrying six million litres of jet fuel, a standard delivery according to chief mate Paul Davison.

The fuel line runs from the ship, across the seabed, before ending up at the Petroleum Storage Depot (PSD) on the shoreline at Akrotiri.

The PSD is RAF Akrotiri's main fuel depot and can store up to 29 million litres of aviation fuel - enough to fill up a Typhoon fighter jet more than 2,260 times.

The PSD also tests and enhances fuel.

A special camera, safe in hazardous areas, had to be used onboard Maersk Raleigh's deck.
A special camera, safe in hazardous areas, had to be used onboard Maersk Raleigh's deck.

Before taking receipt of fresh stocks, personnel have to see exactly how much they already have and check it is not contaminated with any water.

In a laboratory, tests are carried out to ensure the fuel is up to standards and extra chemicals are also added.

One chemical aims to lessen the risk of fuel icing at high altitudes, another to increase lubricity - designed to reduce the amount of wear it causes to a jet engine. 

RAF Akrotiri, stationed on the southern tip of Cyprus, is the service's busiest base. 

It is from there, the RAF flies daily combat sorties over Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Shader - the UK's contribution to the war on so-called Islamic State.

The mission began in 2014 and as a result, demand for fuel at Akrotiri rose sharply.

Within eight months, more than 100 million litres of aviation fuel had been issued.

Every time fuel is delivered, personnel test it to make sure it is up to the required standards.
Every time fuel is delivered, personnel test it to make sure it is up to the required standards.

A year-and-a-half after Op Shader's birth, RAF Akrotiri was home to eight Tornado GR4s and six Typhoons.

"Since the onset of operations, the throughput for the PSD has gone up by 75%," said Flight Sergeant Cliff Christie, who is in charge of the Aviation Fuels Section at RAF Akrotiri.

"During the peak of operations, we were issuing approximately on average a million litres a day to aircraft."

The PSD is tasked with making sure the aircraft used on Op Shader are kept fuelled for missions.

Fuel is pumped from the depot through underground pipes into the airfield, ending up at the Bulk Fuel Installation (BFI). 

The BFI has both a permanent storage tank and a temporary deployable one - set up to meet the extra demands of Op Shader. 

Speaking outside 'BFI 3', Corporal Christ Paita said: "We are currently holding upwards of 320,000 litres of F-34 aviation fuel." 

RAF Voyager prepares for take-off at Akrotiri.
RAF Voyager prepares for take-off at Akrotiri.

A bowser, which transports fuel, then collects up to 44,000 litres and delivers it to the aircraft.

In this case, it was a Voyager which had just arrived full of passengers from RAF Brize Norton. 

The Voyager is a key component of Op Shader, accompanying fighter jets on every mission, delivering up to 60 tonnes of the fuel it had just received to other aircraft to keep them airborne over Iraq and Syria.

This relatively unseen process continues around the clock at RAF Akrotiri - ensuring the aircraft remain fully fuelled and operationally ready.