Air Force Flies Tanker Single Pilot


The Air Force has flown two single-pilot sorties with KC-46 Pegasus tankers. The Oct. 25 flights were the first to test an experimental set of procedures it says are planned for use in grim circumstances. Earlier this year, the Air Force floated the idea, saying it was afraid it would run short of tanker pilots in a war with China since the aircraft are both vulnerable and high value. The single-pilot gambit is being investigated in case there aren’t enough pilots to fly surviving aircraft. The sorties were flown from McConnell Air Force Base with a pilot, a single boom operator and an instructor acting as a safety observer.

“This mission was practiced extensively in flight simulators,” Air Force Col. Nate Vogel, head of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, said in a statement. “Each phase of evaluation has been carefully considered, taking into account crew safety, aircraft capabilities, and existing federal aviation standards. That allowed us to make a deliberate and thorough analysis of what risks and hurdles are present, how to mitigate those, and allowed us to recommend training requirements to familiarize crews with the basic functions and critical controls of unfamiliar crew positions.”

On the first flight, the skeleton crew just did the flying part but on the second hop the pilot and boom operator went through “a full mission profile including ground operations; preflight tasks; takeoff; aerial refueling rendezvous; air refueling on-load and offload; landing; and debrief.” When the boom operator wasn’t dispensing JetA, he or she was sitting in the right seat. In addition to the safety observer, a second KC-46 with experienced crew members flew alongside in case the small crew had any questions or issues.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. What’s special about this? Every 2/3/4 cockpit crew member aircraft can be flown by one pilot. In fact, crews are trained for such ‘grim’ circumstances. How many captains/first officers were forced to fly their aircraft when the other pilot died, or became incapacitated?

    • Because it means close to half of the professional pilots in the world will not be needed at some point in the future. It’s a matter of when, not if.

      • You’re describing FAA certification for single pilot operations. In the military, Dash Ones would be published with procedures for those planes. The FAA, should this effort be applied to scheduled airlines or other operators, would be reluctant to certify these aircraft for single pilot, passenger/cargo revenue flights. It took quite a while for them to oust the third seat from many modern cockpits. As rocket scientists learned after several manned missions, redundancy is next to Godliness.

  2. In WW2 RAF Bomber Command flew mLancaster and Halifax airplanes with one pilot, they couldn’t afford 2 crew. In days past I have operated B737/757/747-400 as a training Captain single handed when on occasion obliged to look after less than able trainees.

  3. Yup…probably flown between 0800 and 1700 on a perfectly clear day with no emergencies and a fully rested pilot. I am absolutely certain war will be fought this way. No fatigue, no emergencies, no one shooting at you, and of course mom won’t call and change the mission 56 times during the same flight.

    If the military needs transport pilots they can call on some of us that would rather fly than play golf. There is enough of us to fill all of their empty seats, already trained, willing to serve. Put me in coach I don’t smoke…..

    Think of the irony, over 65 and too old to be safe, but somehow no pilot filling the same seat is safer! Oh my…

    God bless.

    • “ the Air Force floated the idea, saying it was afraid it would run short of tanker pilots in a war with China since the aircraft are both vulnerable and high value.”

      Couple of PL-2’s up the tailpipe and even if you had ten pilots on board, you’d probably be in the same world of poop.

      • That’s just half of the Air Force dilemma. When Numbnuts (Biden) gets us into a shooting war, the military will lose tens of thousands of troops–including pilots–to quickly arranged discharges, pregnancies, Section 8s, and desertions. Military morale is currently low, and the prospect of combat, particularly against armies that can fight back, would not appeal to our demoralized ‘volunteers’. Only a resumption of the Draft will allow our armed forces to acquire sufficient recruits to prosecute a foreign conflict. We all know what will happen when young males receive those yellow telegrams…

    • Of course, because the USAF is planning only having KC-46s and F-35s. And the F-35 is only good for about 8 hours per week. 😀

      What I am trying to figure out is how they are going to lose all these pilots without also losing boomers and aircraft??????

  4. These pilots fly long missions often under stress. They need a second pilot to relieve the first pilot not someone to keep them company.

  5. I have a number of thoughts on this.

    First, tanker pilots aren’t “fighting”, so they don’t need to be amazing physical specimens. What they need are excellent airmanship skills (including good formation skills). Guess what… there are plenty of fantastic pilots out there in the civilian world who could easily transition to right seat on a tanker. When the shooting starts, people will be lining up to volunteer. The air force just needs to recognize that not everyone will be 23 years old and need to start with UPT.

    Second, the right seat isn’t empty… the Boomer is usually occupying the seat and (as you can probably imagine) will receive more and more training and experience as time goes on. Sure, the Boomer isn’t a “real pilot”, but (s)he obviously has the potential to be a significant resource. (The Navy has used NFOs in a similar role for decades.) So, the right seat role isn’t going away… it’s just getting merged with the Boomer role.

    Yes, this is the next step on our path towards single-pilot and (eventually) autonomous airliners. We’re going to end up there one way or another, so we might as well make sure it’s done safely.

  6. Single pilot crews may well be one reason why the RAF Bomber Command had operational loss rates comparable with or higher than the USAAF did. Plenty of B-17s and B-24s returned with one pilot dead or incapacitated. I have flown many flights where one of us recognized a threat the other didn’t thus validating the TWO pilot crew concept. I think two pilots is a floor below which we descend at our peril. And NEVER buy a ticket to ride on a drone!

  7. Sounds like a reasonable exercise. If things go to crap, I’d hope we would not cry uncle and say we cant fly because we don’t have 2 pilots…Now not having a diverse pool of pilots to chose from is more than enough reason to cancel flights and retreat… The issue of creating a future of single pilot heavy aircraft is moot. That’s coming no matter what. It’s just a natural progression of technology just like the early days of airlines employing navigator/radio operators and flight engineers.

  8. What this experiment is really saying is that the Air Force is concerned that tankers could not survive in a contested environment, and USAF cannot afford to have two pilots go down with a single airplane. That alone is a scary admission by senior Air Force leadership.

    • We haven’t fought a true all-out conflict against a peer opponent since WW-II. If/when it happens again, the attrition rate, both in hardware and manpower, will be frightening, especially so for the Air Force and Navy. Although it is uncommon to see this acknowledged publicly by military leadership, you can bet it is and has been one of those intractable problems that are constantly worried over at the highest levels.

  9. Or, the AF is short on pilots that are woke, gender informed and have admitted to being privileged and systemically racist before being allowed to stay in the service.

    • The AF ‘woke up’ quite a while back. Shortly after the Vietnam Conflict ended, women flooded into the military, and from the start, they were engineering ‘special’ protections and speech codes for their ilk. One incident occurred during the Iran Hostage crisis. Andersen AFB, Guam was the halfway point for fighters and cargo flights to refuel and the crews to rest before they headed to Diego Garcia Island. Operations at Andersen picked up significantly, and the implements of war were lined up on the transient parking ramp. Suddenly, ALL of our female flight operations dispatchers were sent back to the states on EML status, including one woman who was getting an abortion! (She was impregnated by a rated, married officer) Our remaining male staff were forced to work 12 hour shifts, seven days per week for several months. We were ‘awakened’ to the military ethos of ‘equality’ every morning after that.

  10. Thomas T. that’s exactly what they are saying. It’s a very telling acknowledgement of where we are. I believe they are acknowledging that losing tankers in support of combat strikes is going to be a regular cost of carrying out those strikes. I wonder how many strikes we have in us under those conditions? What is very sobering, for anyone who knows their WWII history, is that in major conflicts with powerful adversaries, we have had our share of setbacks and heavy losses as we gained hard-won experience, came to understand both the impact of new technologies on warfare, learned about the skills and strengths of our adversaries, and weeded out our own ineffective leaders. Simply put, the Japanese initially hurt us (and the Brits) very badly, and I’m not talking about Pearl Harbor. I’m talking about the first two years of our offensive operations. We ultimately prevailed in the Pacificbecause we had the industrial base to build upon to replace things the Japanese destroyed, enough people and the organizational infrastructure to train replacements, and the ability to rapidly develop and field new weapons based on experience. I doubt we have all of those capacities now, having outsourced our industrial base and manufacturing know-how. We need to start rebuilding military and industrial depth right now or we won’t have the resilience we are going to need. The Ukrainian conflict has given us a view into the impact of new technologies, just as the Spanish Civil war did in Europe on the eve of WWII. Whether we absorb and act upon those lessons is another question. The Ukrainian conflict is also spotlighting our difficulty in manufacturing replacements of the consumables and equipment we are giving Ukraine. I’m not seeing anyone acknowledging that deterring our adversaries, and, if necessary, winning a conflict, is going to cost us, and we’re going to need to tax ourselves and tighten a belt notch or two to pay for what we need to do. Sorry to be grim, but this small story is a window into a much bigger problem that we ignore at our peril. Perhaps we can rally around this existential cause, even if we disagree on many other things.

    • Only disagreement is the tax issues. We don’t need another penny in taxes. Just stop wasting what we already pay. You can start with billions wasted on the US Dept of Education and work your way down the waste list to grants to Ecuador for Drag Queen Shows.

    • The Japanese hurt the Chinese, Russians, Australians and the Philippines before our armed forces were deployed after war was declared. (They were even accused of killing Amelia Earhart and her navigator!!) Our AVF pilots were holding Japanese forces in check before things got out of hand, but America was not ready–or willing–to engage in foreign conflicts, particularly after we were told that WWI was the “War to End All Wars”. Even Charles Lindbergh would join a chorus of Non-Interventionists to preach sovereignty and restraint as Americans were increasingly plied with bellicose media and official presentations. It’s quite easy for those lawyers in congress to express their bellicosity and resolve toward foreign conflicts when their butts aren’t on the line for combat deployments.

  11. Having two pilots in the cockpit of any aircraft is better and safer than one, at all times and under all circumstances. RAF Bomber Command flew four engine bombers with one pilot in WWII due to a desperate shortage of manpower. Things are done in wartime out of necessity that are neither safe nor reasonable otherwise.