RAF Atlas dwarfed as it refuels mid-flight for first time ever

The A400M transport aircraft received fuel from a Voyager – both used during Afghan evacuations this summer.

An RAF Atlas has conducted air-to-air refuelling – for the first time ever.

Personnel from RAF Brize Norton-based 206 Squadron conducted trials with the A400M transport aircraft, using a Voyager to replenish it in mid-air.

In a rare sight, the 45-metre Atlas, capable of holding 116 fully-equipped troops, was almost dwarfed by the Voyager tanker at almost 59 metres.

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Both are capable transport vehicles and were used to good effect during the Afghanistan evacuations in the summer.

The Atlas can already carry 37 tonnes across 2,000 nautical miles, but air-to-air refuelling enables aircraft to continue their mission without landing.

Members of 206 Squadron are well versed in the evaluation of heavy military planes – working with others such as the Hercules, set for retirement in 2023.

Twenty-two Atlas A400Ms will, alongside the UK's C-17, be left to shoulder the transport duties left behind.

Airborne refuelling is a difficult yet vital capability, requiring precise movements to keep multiple aircraft close, but not too close.

An Atlas aircraft refuels with a Voyager (Picture: RAF).

According to Wing Commander Adrian Woolven, Officer Commanding 206 Squadron, a "unique" fly-by-wire control system on board the plane offers an electronic and semi-automatic degree of accuracy to the refuelling process.

"This makes it much easier to maintain formation to make contact and take fuel," he added.

"This trial has given us the capability to hand over to frontline instructors by the end of the year which will enable them to roll out to the remaining A400M Squadrons, 24, 30, and 70 Squadrons at RAF Brize Norton."

To minimise risk during the trials, those involved trained on simulation technology to get familiar with how the aircraft would perform.

Flight Lieutenant Crow, Flight Test Engineer 206 Squadron, highlighted the importance of the milestone as the Atlas prepares for even more responsibility in the years to come.

"Air-to-air refuelling enables the aircraft to reach further, fly for longer and lift more weight around the world more effectively," he said.