The ability to refuel helicopters is a capability that few countries have: France is currently the only European country to have this capability, with the C130J-Caracal pair, and is working to expand this capability with the A400M as a tanker. With this in mind, an A400M air-to-air refueling test campaign for EC725 helicopters took place in southwest France from March 22 to April 2, 2021.
These tests, under the industrial responsibility of Airbus, were organized by the French defense procurement agency (DGA), in this case the DGA flight test center, with the participation of the French Air Force. The A400M, supplied by Airbus, was based in Bordeaux on Air Force Base 106 (BA 106), while the EC725 Caracals of the Air Force’s EH Pyrénées squadron were based in Cazaux on Air Force Base 120 (BA 120).
The objective of this campaign was to advance the certification of the A400M’s ability to refuel helicopters, day and night. Eight flights took place, including one with two helicopters refueling simultaneously, as well as two night flights. All in all, more than 25 hours of test flights, nearly 80 contacts and several tons of fuel were transferred.
For this particularly intense campaign, the experts and resources of the DGA were heavily involved. First of all, for the helicopter flights, with experimental helicopter test pilots (PEXH), test flight engineers (INE) and test flight engineers (MNE) from DGA Flight Tests, sometimes in mixed crews with air force and space force personnel, and INE and MNE participation in A400M flights as certification flight crews But also for the organization of the reception of the A400M and all its support team on the BA106 in Bordeaux, the constant coordination of all the test means and the various organizations involved, the supply of means necessary to the tests in particular of the sensitive materials such as the binoculars of night vision. Finally, for all these flights with very demanding profiles, the DGA’s test and reception air traffic controllers also provided the control service for these flights, coordinating with the civil aviation and armed forces for the use of the airspace.
This ambitious campaign, which mobilized a total of about 70 people, benefited from particularly favorable weather conditions throughout the tests, according to the DGA. The tests demonstrated the A400M’s ability to refuel helicopters throughout the planned flight envelope (speed, altitude, weight), to refuel two helicopters simultaneously and to refuel at night under night vision goggles.