In a world first, No. 33 Squadron (33SQN) has conducted an ‘elephant walk’ with five KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) at RAAF Base Amberley.
An elephant walk is an aviation term which dates back to the Second World War, when massed formations of Allied bombers would taxi to the runway for take-off.
On 15 November, 33SQN conducted the feat with five aircraft, with a row of KC-30As stretched over 500 metres of RAAF Base Amberley taxiway.
It was made possible thanks to significant improvements to how 33SQN plans maintenance for the KC-30A fleet, providing greater aircraft availability for missions.
Following the elephant walk, four of the aircraft took off from Amberley on separate missions.
These included air-to-air refuelling training, flight test development, and airlift tasks to support volunteer firefighters combatting bushfires in New South Wales.
33SQN has a fleet of seven KC-30As in total.
Of the squadron’s remaining two aircraft, one flew on a mission in the Middle East Region for Operation Okra, and the other was in scheduled heavy maintenance.
Group Captain (GPCAPT) Steve Pesce, Officer Commanding No. 86 Wing, said the KC-30A elephant walk demonstrated an immense strategic capability for Defence.
“Launching five KC-30A aircraft demonstrates a capacity to concurrently transport over one thousand passengers or ferry more than 40 Hornets across Australia,” GPCAPT Pesce said.
“Alternatively, five aircraft could position 1800 kilometres from base and offload 250 tonnes of fuel to receivers over four hours.
“The capacity to project this magnitude of air power at range has previously been beyond Air Force.”
Reaching this achievement required No. 33 Squadron to draw on its experience as the lead operator of the KC-30A.
Each KC-30A is a heavily modified variant of the Airbus A330-200 commercial airliner, and at 59 metres long and with a 60.3-metre wingspan, it is the largest aircraft in the Air Force.
Unique systems on the KC-30A – from external-mounted cameras to hose-and-drogue refuelling pods mounted beneath the wings, and an 11-metre telescopic boom mounted beneath the tail – all require careful maintenance to ensure it can refuel other aircraft.
Following delays in its development, a fleet of five KC-30As were delivered to the RAAF between 2011 and 2015.
A sixth and seventh aircraft were delivered in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Since September 2014, the squadron has supported a nearly continuous deployment of a single KC-30A to the Middle East Region, where the aircraft has been coined ‘Coalition Tanker of Choice’.
Operations at home and abroad had stretched 33SQN’s workforce, according to its Senior Engineering Officer, Squadron Leader (SQNLDR) David Burns.
“During Operation APEC Assist in November 2018, four KC-30As sustained operations for a total of 157 hours and 1.75 million pounds of fuel offloaded over six intensive days,” SQNLDR Burns said.
“Doing this required a significant surge from the technical workforce to inject the required scheduled maintenance to the aircraft.”
The tempo for No. 33 Squadron in 2019 has remained high, with ferry flights for F-35As from the United States, support to Air Combat Group exercises in Japan and South East Asia, global transport of international UN forces to the Middle East a deployment in the Middle East Region.
33SQN has also added a specially modified KC-30A Government Transport Communication (GTC) aircraft to the fleet to support Government transport and additional Air Refuelling capacity.
Over the last 12 months, changes have been made to how KC-30A maintenance activities are planned and carried out, and a different picture has emerged.
“Without a surge in activity, 33SQN personnel launched five KC-30A concurrently with enough maintenance life to sustain more than triple the APEC rate of effort,” SQNLDR Burns said.
Like all aircraft, the KC-30A requires both contingency maintenance on unserviceable components, and preventative maintenance to inspect areas and change out parts due for servicing.
A new Rolling Maintenance Program was introduced in early 2019 by 33SQN, building on its experience with the KC-30A over the past eight years.
“The Program involved the unit learning to limit itself to only one KC-30A down for scheduled servicing at any given time,” SQNLDR Burns said.
“Doing this injected enough maintenance activities into an aircraft to clear it for six weeks of multi-role operations.
“Ultimately, this allowed the unit to maintain a KC-30A outside of operational programming lines, rather than around them.”
Coupled with other reforms, 33SQN has delivered a three-fold increase in mission-capable aircraft, on average.
Increased availability has also allowed the wider 33SQN workforce to meet training needs and work-life balance.
“The transition to the Rolling Maintenance Program was achieved sustainably, and was concurrent with 33SQN personnel reducing their average leave balances,” SQNLDR Burns said.
“Increased availability of KC-30As for air logistics and air-to-air refuelling missions has increased our ‘raise-train-sustain’ output across the Squadron.”
Wing Commander Sarah Stalker, Commanding Officer 33SQN, said the Rolling Maintenance Program would make tasking the KC-30A more predictable in future.
“We are now at the point where this level of aircraft being fully-mission capable and available for tasking is repeatable,” Wing Commander Stalker said.
“It has positioned 33SQN to provide greater mission assurance to Defence and Government, with a sustainable 51 per cent increase in monthly sortie generation.
“The personnel of 33SQN and the wider KC-30A enterprise – including Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, and industry partners – can be justly proud of their efforts.”