A group of Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division engineers recently expedited a flight clearance for F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets to conduct aerial refueling from Air Force KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft in response to an urgent request from a West Coast Navy fighter squadron. Thanks to their collective efforts, the clearance was approved in just five days and is now available to the entire fleet.
May 30, a Saturday, had been a quiet day for Naval Test Wing Atlantic flight test technical specialist Chris Nickell until he received an email from an officer in Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 136 “Knighthawks.” The squadron had been on an extended deployment aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) in the Atlantic, the email said, and were preparing to rotate home to Naval Air Station Lemoore, California. If the squadron could refuel in the air, they would not have to quarantine upon their arrival home. The Knighthawks had identified an Air Force KC-46A tanker squadron that would be able to rendezvous with them. But were Super Hornets cleared to refuel off the tankers’ Centerline Drogue System, or CDS?
“At the time, the testing had already been completed and the Aircraft Systems & Aerial Refueling team was writing reports, but our final report hadn’t been approved and accepted by the flight clearance authorities yet,” Nickell recalled. “I asked him when the squadron would be returning and he said June 5, which was less than a week away.”
With no time to waste, Nickell began corralling Navy F/A-18 subject matter experts and Air Force engineers who specialized in all aspects of the KC-46A and sent them copies of the draft reports and recommendations for them to review. The team also sent copies to the Air Force’s Aerial Refueling Certification Authority, which was in the process of drafting their own technical evaluation documentation in parallel.
“Fortunately, this was pretty straightforward,” said Tom Cavallaro, the team’s Fuel Containment and Aerial Refueling Senior Engineer. “We had collected a lot of data for our reports, and we also had data from the legacy Hornets as well. What made it challenging was that the deadline was so quick.”
Another factor affecting the team’s ability to get the job done was the necessity for teleworking due to safety restrictions required to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“We were able to get through that because we had already developed personal relationships with the members of the entire team to the point where we were able to reach out to them on their cell phones,” said Lt. Chad “Nature Boy” Henderson, the F/A-18 E/F project officer at Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23. “A lot of those relationships were due to the great work done by the engineers throughout the project of making sure everyone was involved in what was going on.”
By the afternoon of June 4, the day before the squadron’s planned departure for home, the tanker’s Standards Related Document had been updated with the appropriate cautions and warnings and authorized flight envelopes for all tanker and receiver combinations, authorizing VFA-136 — and all Super Hornets — to perform aerial refueling from the KC-46A CDS.
“Basically, we took what should have been a few months and compressed it by running actions in parallel instead of serially,” explained Nickell. “This was possible because the test team had made it a priority to include the flight clearance engineers in the ground and flight test planning process, and the team shared results as they happened. This means that those responsible for signing the authorizing fleet clearance, on both the Navy and Air Force sides, already had a high knowledge base of the project, its difficulties, and the technical acumen of the team collecting and analyzing the data. This enabled a fast and nimble process and a safe, speed-to-the-fleet clearance.”
As it turned out, VFA-136, uncertain whether the KC-46A clearance would be granted in time, was able to make other refueling arrangements for its flight home, but thanks to the hard work of the Navy and Air Force engineering teams who pulled together to expedite a solution, now all Super Hornets are able to tank off KC-46As anywhere in the world, increasing their flexibility to respond to threats in whatever form, and wherever they appear.
“It’s exciting to be able to work together to get this capability to the fleet,” Henderson said. “This is why we are here, to be able to provide capabilities that help our friends in the fleet.”
Nickell said that the ability of the team to respond quickly to the urgent need is a good example of NAVAIR’s new Mission Aligned Organization in action. “I’ve been called an MAO poster child,” Nickell said with a laugh. “I think this is a great example of how the Mission Aligned Organization can and should work — taking the people who are aligned to a mission and getting them to focus on what they need to do to complete the mission as quickly, effectively, and safely as possible.”
“Because the air refueling community is very integrated, we are a good example of how mission alignment can really benefit the fleet,” Nickell said.