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The Art and Science of Mid-Air Refueling

Moneymagpie Team 20th Apr 2024 No Comments

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The first mid-air refuelling took place in San Diego in 1923 where fuel was transferred from one biplane to another through a hose. An endurance record was set by one pilot who flew for more than 37 hours using 9 refuellings. This concept has come a long way over the last 100 years and it is now standard practice during military operations and is beginning to be adopted in other areas as well.

Read on to find out why midair refuelling is important, where it is used, the two different types, and what the future holds.

Different Types

We have come a long way since 1923. As it stands, there are two main methods when it comes to midair refuelling. Although they might seem the same, there are some subtle differences, but they both involve a tanker aircraft and a receiver.

The Flying Boom System

The Flying Boom system is characterised by a rigid, telescoping tube managed by an operator aboard the tanker aircraft. This system requires a high degree of precision, as the boom is actively steered into a receptacle on the receiving aircraft. Known for their preference for efficiency, this is the method predominantly used by the US Air Force.

The method is generally used for large aircraft needing significant amounts of fuel in a short time as it has a very high fuel transfer rate. However, it does require specialised training for the boom operators and a high level of coordination between the tanker and the receiver crews.

The primary advantage of the Flying Boom system is its high fuel transfer rate, making it particularly suitable for large aircraft needing significant amounts of fuel in a short time. However, its operation requires specialized training for boom operators and coordination between the tanker and receiver crews to ensure a safe connection and fuel transfer. The United States Air Force predominantly employs this system, highlighting its preference for efficiency and rapid refuelling capabilities in operations requiring heavy fuel loads.

The Probe-and-Drogue System

While the Flying Boom system is mainly used by the US Air Force, the Probe-and-Drogue system is more universally adopted. It uses a flexible hose that trails from the tanker which ends in a drogue, much like a windsock. The receiver must insert a probe into the drogue to establish a connection.

Although this type of midair refuelling is a slower transfer, it does open up opportunities for multiple aircraft to be refuelled at the same time. The Probe-and-Drogue is also compatible with many different types of aircraft, including helicopters, which is why it is favoured by naval forces, especially across Europe where multinational cooperation is paramount.

Benefits and Use Cases

At the moment, midair refuelling is solely used in military, and sometimes humanitarian, contexts. There are no known civilian applications of this technology but there are certainly some ways in which it could be adopted.

Flying Further for Longer

The most obvious benefit of midair refuelling is that it allows pilots to extend their distance and time before having to land. This means that air forces around the world can respond to critical events and situations with a much quicker response time. For example, if a jet was finishing a mission and low on fuel, it could be refuelled in 5 to 10 minutes and could respond to an event rather than having to land, taxi, park, refuel, and then take off again.

Reaching Remote Locations

Because aircraft can fly much further distances and pilots can have more air time, this allows aircraft to reach locations that are less accessible to land. For instance, it would allow a quick oceanic response, and it would also allow a response deep within mountain ranges, jungles, and even deserts. By comparison, it would take days, weeks, and maybe even months to launch a land response in some of these locations. Similarly, this would be useful for aid situations in foreign lands.

Increased Cargo and Payloads

Another benefit that often goes under the radar is the fact that midair refuelling allows for larger payloads. Conventionally, the ‘maximum takeoff weight’ (MTOW) of an aircraft is a strict limit that is calculated via the weight of the aircraft, cargo, passenger, and fuel. Fuelling an aircraft for a long distance will increase the MTOW and reduce the amount of cargo it can hold. Midari refuelling allows aircraft to allocate more of their MTOW to cargo than to fuel. This would be especially useful in humanitarian situations where evacuations are taking place, or in an attacking situation where explosives are required.

The Future


Aviation technology is evolving at a fast pace and midair refuelling faces a number of challenges to maintain relevance and effectiveness. For instance, tanker aircraft are starting to become outdated as many tankers are based on decades-old airframes which need constant maintenance and upgrades.

Training and safety are also some significant concerns moving forward. As impressive as midair refuelling is, it is also a dangerous manoeuvre that requires a very high level of training and comes with the risk of midair collisions and physical strain for pilots flying for long periods of time.


Hopefully, as technology continues to advance, as do the capabilities of sensors, control systems, and AI, all of which might increase the efficiency and safety of refuelling missions. Along the same lines, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly being assigned more significant roles in military contexts. Perhaps in time autonomous or remote-controlled refuelling capabilities will overtake the need for piloted tankers. This would reduce the resources and expenses involved with piloting midair refuelling missions and it would reduce the likelihood of human error and allow for more precise levels of control during the refuelling process.

Technology to one side, we may also see more efficient tanker aircraft designs and the adoption of alternative fuels to further extend the range of midair refuelling missions while minimising environmental impacts. We are also seeing a booming aerospace industry which brings questions about extra-orbit capabilities as well as potential non-stop commercial flights in a civilian setting. Either way, aircraft security will always be a challenge.

Disclaimer: MoneyMagpie is not a licensed financial advisor and therefore information found here including opinions, commentary, suggestions or strategies are for informational, entertainment or educational purposes only. This should not be considered as financial advice. Anyone thinking of investing should conduct their own due diligence.

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Jasmine Birtles

Your money-making expert. Financial journalist, TV and radio personality.

Jasmine Birtles

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