David Weinrich

Aerial refueling in the Israel Air and Space Force

The recent order for a fleet of factory fresh air-to-air refueling aircraft for the Israel Air Force will give the Jewish state the ability to operate even further afield in the future.

During the 1967 Six Day War the Israel Air Force (IAF, now Israel Air & Space Force) initially attacked Egyptian airfields with wave after wave of first- and second-generation French-built fighter jets: Ouragan, Mystere, Super Mystere and the then state-of-the-art Mirage III. These took off from early morning till late in the evening, returning to their bases in Israel and repeating attacks until the airspace over southern Israel and the Sinai was clear, in order to enable Israeli ground troops to smash the Egyptian army and capture the Sinai Peninsula, thus ensuring, inter alia, freedom of access for all nations to the Suez canal. Another front against Syria involved similar tactics when their army joined the battle, leading to the capture of the Golan and putting an end to the deadly daily bombardment against Israeli towns and villages from that strategic location, whilst strafing runs against Jordanian infantry and artillery quickly secured peace in the east. 

A Boeing KC-97 refuels a pair of “Ayit” A-4 Skyhawks at the IAF Day display, July 1971. (Photo courtesy Ra’naan Weiss collection, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law) 

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the part played by airpower was equally important, and the outcome eventually favoured Israel, but the battlefield had changed significantly. In the attack role, the IAF now had American-built A-4H Skyhawks and F-4E Phantoms fitted with refueling probes, theoretically giving the fighter-jets the ability to remain in the air for much longer, as, by this time the IAF already operated a small number of “hose-and-drogue” equipped Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighters, soon to be augmented by at least one similar aircraft with a centreline refueling “boom”. A complete KC-97 boom assembly was acquired in 1971, first appearing in public fitted to Strat 4X-FPP at the July 1972 Israel Air Force Day. When this airframe was retired (in 1972) the boom was transferred to sister-ship 4X-FPO.  Unfortunately, due to the speed differential of the F-4Es, only the A-4s could be air-refueled, a situation that would not change until 1981, thus no further KC-97s were fitted with booms.

Lockheed C-130H Hercules (Karnaff) locally modified by Israel Aircraft Industries with the addition of wing mounted “hose & drogue” refueling pods (photo Author’s own, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law)Over the years, various other aircraft in the IAF inventory have been used as tanker aircraft, including the “buddy” system where an A-4 Skyhawk (Ayit in the IAF) can refuel other A-4s. Two factory-fresh KC-130H Hercules, plus two locally modified C-130Hs also operated as tankers, as did an E-2C “Hawkeye” (Daya) fitted with the ”hose & drogue” system, but of course, the major player has been several locally converted Boeing 707 (Re’em) aircraft fitted with refueling booms. The first such conversion was tail number 140 (4X-JYT, a former SABENA aircraft) with the boom assembled from US- supplied spare parts. These aircraft have been involved in some of the IAFs most audacious missions (but not the most famous!) and continue to play an integral part of current and future IAF planning, in which  long-range strikes against some of the most belligerent states in the region are rapidly becoming a necessity rather than a last resort. The current aircraft are some of the last B.707-300 “Intercontinentals” built, mainly mid-late 1970s vintage, about the same age as the F-15A/B Eagles alongside which they operate on a daily basis. 

Boeing KC-707 “Re’em II” in the dark grey colour scheme (author’s own, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law )These aircraft may be decades old, but they have chalked up relatively few flying hours,  and are constantly maintained by Israel Air & Space Industries (IASI) and the IAF at their Nevatim base in the Negev. These iconic jets could theoretically serve many more years. Moreover, advances in radar and tracking technology are nowadays such that any cross-border flights can be easily monitored by Israel’s adversaries, whether the IAF is using a four-jet 707 or a twin-jet KC-46A Pegasus, they will easily give away the route, if not the exact location of any “strike package”. Still, nothing lasts forever, so Israel has made the decision to order an initial four Pegasii from Boeing, with options for four more, to replace a similar, but classified number of boom-equipped Re’em in the IAF. Significantly, this sale marks the first time that the United States has allowed Israel to purchase a dedicated refueling aircraft.

Close-up of the legacy refueling “boom” (author’s own, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law) Widely reported in the press recently was the visit to Israel of Mr Ted Colbert, CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security who said his visit “will help to make sure that it is absolutely, positively clear that we remain committed to serving Israel”. Meetings were held with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, in the presence of the president of Boeing Israel and former commander of the IAF, Major General (Ret) Ido Nehushtan. Amongst their discussions were fast-tracking the pre-announced sale of the Pegasii tankers, and the possible repeat order; a first tranche of 25 advanced F-15IA Eagle IIs, again with a view to ensuring deliveries over a shorter period of time than usual and not announced, but also a high priority for the IAF, the supply of modern Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to replace Israel’s elderly fleet of legacy Apaches.

KC707 “Reem” serial 264 with the boom fully extended in formation with an F-16 “Sufa” during an Independence Day flypast (photo author’s own, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law) The advantages that a new tanker aircraft will bring to the IAF are several: A factory-fresh airframe requiring less maintenance, a lower lifecycle cost, and greater aircraft availability (thus obviating the current IAF requirement for both or either ground or air-spare reserve aircraft for many training and operational missions). Powered by two state-of-the-art Pratt & Whitney PW4062 dual-spool, axial-flow, high-bypass turbofan engines from the successful civil-market PW-4000 family gives the Pegasus vastly improved fuel and cargo carrying performance over the aging four-engined tankers it will eventually replace. Air-crew skills and manning levels are likely to remain broadly similar to those of the Re’em tankers, as the IAF trains both current and future personnel, on the new aircraft and its systems. 

KC-46A “Pegasus” tail 66023 blast-off from from McClellan AFB with the author in the passenger compartment (photo by Steve Pickering from author’s support staff, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law)What the new dual-role aircraft will give the IAF is well illustrated by Israel’s recent earthquake rescue mission to Turkiye which involved numerous C-130 flights to bring in all the necessary rescue personnel and equipment. The Pegasus, on the other hand, can carry up to 18 standard cargo pallets, meaning that all the of required rescue equipment could have been carried on one flight, with space for attendant medical personnel, and with the aircraft returning empty to Israel to be quickly reconfigured as a mobile field hospital and returning to assist with saving lives. For the IAF deployment to Red Flag 23/2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, a single Pegasus could replace a number of C-130 Hercules flights carrying ground equipment,  while a second aircraft could have refueled then F-35A Lightning (Adirs) for their journey via Spain and Bangor, Maine. A second aircraft would have been required for the tanking role, but even so, it would have been much more efficient than the fleet of 707s that was actually called upon to perform the job.

Re’em 290 hooked up to an F-35 Adir during the Independence Day flypast (Author’s own photo, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law)The Pegasus is typically flown by two pilots with no requirement for a flight engineer. The aircraft is actually a hybrid B767-200 body with wings from the -300 and larger CRT screens from the 787 family. The cockpit is thus basically the same as the Boeing 767 passenger jet flown for many years by EL AL, so instructor pilots should be readily available from among reserve-duty officers. There are two observer positions behind the pilots for training purposes, where previously a flight-engineer would have worked, plus an instructor position behind the two boomer stations, and a further eight passenger seats, with integral tray tables. A small galley and toilet plus three fixed bunk beds for crew rest on longer missions complete the cabin, which is separated from the rest of the aircraft by a flexible “fire-wall”. 

Cargo pallets being secured inside the cavernous hold of a United States Air Force KC-46A (photo courtesy of the 22ARW Public Affairs department, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law)The lead integration unit for the KC-46A Pegasus in the United States Air Force (USAF) is the 22nd Air refueling Wing (22ndARW) at McConnell AFB, which this author was recently privileged to join for a training flight over their home state of Kansas. In the case of my flight, it was possible to train both pilots and boomers because we engaged in multiple hook-ups and break-aways with a sister aircraft. With the two aircraft working together, four boom operators (one instructor plus two students in each aircraft) could be trained in the art of aerial refueling, whilst the pilots made multiple “touch-and-go” landings to improve their proficiency with the new aircraft. I was told the take-off and landing procedures for the KC-46 are much easier than those of the KC-135R whose CFM-56 engines hang much closer to the tarmac. The ability of the Pegasus to be refueled also means that the aircraft can stay in the air for a greatly extended period, not so important for IAF current needs, but perhaps useful in the long term. 

Our Pegasus approaches a sister aircraft preparing to hook-up for simulated “gas-passing” over Kansas recently (photo from the 22ARW public affairs office, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law)The refueling boom is typically operated by one boomer sitting comfortably in the main cabin utilising the state-of-the-art RVS (Remote Vision System). As was very happily pointed out, the boomer now gets lumbar support as previously, American boomers had to lie face down in the rear of the aircraft. The RVS uses a number of 3D cameras mounted outside the aircraft, which collectively monitor the hook-up between tanker and receiver. While this system has been the source of some controversy, with alleged difficulties in adverse light conditions, the veteran operator on our flight comfortably handled the simulations (no fuel was passed) and explained some useful tips gained from years of experience on the KC-135. As with all new systems, the cameras will shortly be upgraded, in this case to RVS-2 with full colour displays  and serve perfectly well in the future. RVS-2 is already coming on-line and will be fully integrated by the time Israel takes delivery of its first Pegasus in 2025.

Unfortunately no pictures of IAF KC-46s yet, but here’s a Japanese aircraft being fitted out at Paine Field WA recently (author’s own, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law )By the time Israel takes delivery of their first Pegasus, both the USAF and Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) will be operating the aircraft. Upon entering IAF service it will be cleared to refuel all three IAF Combat types, the F-35A Adir and all models of F-15 Baz/Ra’am  & F-16 Barak/Suffa. The refueling process is the same for all three types, the receiver approaches the boom at the rear of the tanker and is guided into position to hook-up by the boomer, after which fuel flows until the required amount is taken on board. If contact is lost due to turbulence or another problem, fuel automatically stops flowing. In the case of the F-35 mid-air refueling can give the pilot another two hours flying time, slightly less than that for the older F-15s and F-16s. Given Israel’s small size, refueling a combat aircraft close to home, after a full power, fuel-heavy, take-off and climb, should give those aircraft the range they need to complete the mission and return for a top-up (or head to a friendly base). The Pegasus can carry its own weight in fuel, of which at least half can be transferred to receivers, enough to satisfy a mixed attack force of, for example, F-35s and F-15s. 

Whilst the US have never sold Israel refueling aircraft in the past, the IAF has been using boom-equipped B707s since 1981. The KC-46 uses a much modified and modernised unit, seen here in the boom shop at McConnell AFB, Kansas (photo by Steve Pickering, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law)Tanker aircraft, as noted above, present a very observable target for an adversary. In light of this the Pegasus is purposely designed to go deeper into combat zones than older tankers and is built to survive, with multiple layers of self-protection systems and defensive countermeasures. These include the Tactical Situational Awareness System (TSAS); nuclear, chemical and biological hardening; flight deck armor; radio frequency threat detection; and infrared missile countermeasures. An integral part of this protection is the Raytheon ALR-69A, all-digital radar-warning receiver, which enhances tanker survivability by warning the aircrew about imminent airborne threats. Further protection over hostile territory is available through the installation of the Large Aircraft Infrared Counter-Measures (LAIRCM) system. LAIRCM is a directional active infrared (IR) jammer designed to defeat a wide range of ground-fired IR missiles. LAIRCM automatically detects a missile launch, determines if it is a threat to the aircraft, and then jams the missile seeker by activating a high-intensity, laser-based countermeasure system to track and defeat the missile. 

Hard at work in “the Office” the author makes copious notes while trying to write out all the acronyms longhand – everything in the USAF has an acronym. Former EL AL Boeing 767 pilots will feel right at home, down to the tray tables in the otherwise spartan passenger compartment. (author’s sweater by Marks & Spencer, this image is available to be published commercially, in accord with copyright law)The entry of the Pegasus into Israeli service will extend the IAF’s area of operations to cover every potential threat to the Jewish state. The IAF will be able to perform whatever missions are assigned, and bring its aircrews safely home again. The IAF’s fleet of Pegasii will, in short, ensure freedom of action for Israeli strike aircraft throughout the Middle East, and if required, even beyond.

About the Author
David Weinrich has dedicated his life to chasing military aircraft for fun, in Europe, the Americas, the Far East and for the past 27 years, at home in Israel. He photographs them, underlines them in his books (quill & parchment, please), escorts foreign "plane spotters" to the farthest corners of Israel and now writes a Blog about them for the Times of Israel.