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How Airplanes Refuel in the Air?

Each aircraft is a collection of complex technology and processes which have benefited from decades of rapid progress. One such innovation has been the implementation of aerial refueling wherein one aircraft pumps fuel through a hose to another aircraft mid-flight. To work effectively, the two aircraft must fly in formation at a specific distance from each other throughout the process. Once in the right formation, a hose and several other components are extended to connect the two planes. After which, a signal is sent out by the pilot to start pumping. This process is the result of careful learning and planning which has guided the steps of the procedure. In this article, we will be discussing how aerial refueling works in more detail, including the different methods that exist.

The Types of Refueling Systems

Aerial refueling can be split into two major types: probe-and-drogue and the flying boom. Historically, probe-and-drogue has been the easier method to adapt to existing aircraft, but the flying boom has several notable benefits as well. In the probe-and-drogue method, an engineer unrolls a long hose from a wingtip or below the fuselage. At the end of the hose, there is a funnel-shaped device called a basket or drogue which provides a wider opening to the hose and adds weight so that it can remain relatively stable in the air. 

Once the hose reaches its maximum extension, the receiver pilot must insert a retractable probe into the drogue to form a sealed pathway for the fuel to follow. This refueling probe is typically mounted on the plane’s nose. Therefore, the engineer and receiver pilot must gently maneuver the probe so that it will latch onto the basket. If the maneuver is executed with too much force, the probe will stab the drogue and cause the hose to bunch up and fly away. As such, the tanker will start pumping only when there is a seal between the basket or drogue and the retractable probe. 

Rather than being positioned by the pilot, the flying boom requires a dedicated operator who sits at the back of the tank and navigates a telescope tube into a receptacle near the front of the receiver plane. Once the boom latches, a signal is sent to the tanker to begin pumping fuel. Though this method is somewhat more difficult, the flying boom can pump a lot more fuel than then probe-and-drogue, so it is often preferred for large airplanes.

Uses for Aerial Refueling

Beginning as a major tactical advantage for the US which allowed for longer flights and larger fleets, aerial refueling has become a process that is practiced by air forces worldwide. For example, the US Navy, Marines, and Army commonly use drogue assembly refueling during long flights over areas where landing to refuel would be unsafe or impossible. In addition, whereas large commercial airliners carry all the fuel they need in their wings, many fighter jets use much less fuel to increase their efficiency and capabilities. By minimizing the amount of fuel carried on these vessels, they can fly faster and carry out maneuvers that could not be achieved otherwise. 


Here, on Veritable Aviation, we offer an array of aircraft engine fuel system components including aircraft refueler parts. We are proudly an AS9120B, ISO 9001:2015, and FAA AC 00-56B accredited enterprise, meaning that we go to great lengths to uphold a high standard of service and quality for our customers. If you are currently on the search for reliable aircraft parts, we invite you to browse our online catalog of available products and make use of our Instant RFQ service to receive competitive quotes for your comparisons. Our team of experts are available 24/7x365 to answer customer inquiries and requests, and we will reply to RFQ forms in just 15 minutes or less!


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