On a crisp Spring morning in the Oxfordshire countryside, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) carried out a historic in-flight refuelling exercise with blended sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) using an Airbus Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) Voyager aircraft. This comes exactly 100 years since the first-ever air-to-air refuelling of an aircraft was carried out.
The RAF’s VIP Voyager was filled with 43% SAF and taxied on to the Brize Norton runway, emblazoned with a Union Flag tail and gold-lettered ‘United Kingdom’ livery. On board were UK Business and Trade Minister Nusrat Ghani MP, members of the media, and Airbus’ Filton-based engineer Loraine McIlree, who had led the team that successfully flew the Voyager on 100% SAF from Brize in November.
Loraine said, “Last year, we had the opportunity to push the boundaries and performed a flight test on an in-service military aircraft. I led the technical team for this project and we successfully flew an RAF Voyager A330 MRTT with 100% SAF on both engines, with no fossil fuel on board.”
“To clear the aircraft to fly with 100% SAF requires a thorough analysis of all parts of the aircraft impacted by fuel. All materials need to be checked for compatibility, together with the systems adjacent to the fuel tanks. It took months of work to obtain the clearance, and it was a great moment to witness the Voyager fly last November with 100% SAF. The flight crew reported no difference in performance during the flight, and we captured a lot of data to help us progress towards clearing SAF on our aircraft.”
April’s demonstration flight took sustainability to a new level by refuelling four Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets with blended SAF. The exercise was timed to coincide with the start of the Farnborough Sustainable Skies World Summit, and the VIP Airbus Voyager performed a 500ft low fly-past over Farnborough before landing back at Brize Norton.
Air Vice-Marshal Paul Lloyd said, “With a payload of 43 tonnes of freight and 291 seat passenger capacity, plus an aeromedical evacuation capability, Voyager also delivers flexibility in air mobility to the UK Armed forces in support of military and humanitarian operations.”
The Jet Zero Council, a partnership between industry and government with the aim of delivering at least 10% SAF in the UK fuel mix by 2030 and zero emission transatlantic flight within a generation, also met during the two days of the Sustainable Skies World Summit.
Defence Minister Baroness Goldie added, “The RAF has identified that using SAF and alternative aviation fuels will be critical for the future operational capability of the RAF and wider military aviation. The UK’s SAF programme is already one of the most comprehensive in the world and supports our vision to set the UK up to be a global leader in the development, production, and use of SAF.”
The use of sustainable aviation fuel is gaining momentum as airlines seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint and comply with increasingly strict emissions regulations. SAF is a low-carbon alternative to traditional jet fuel, made from sustainable resources such as biomass, waste oils, and renewable electricity. It has the potential to reduce aviation emissions by up to 80%, according to the International Air Transport Association.
However, SAF is still expensive and limited in supply. The aviation industry and governments around the world are investing in research and development to improve the production process and increase supply, with the aim of making it more widely available and cost-effective.
The RAF’s successful in-flight refuelling exercise with SAF is a significant milestone in the aviation industry’s journey towards reducing its carbon footprint and achieving net-zero emissions.