Euro air tanker jets to NT after Ukraine

·3-min read

A state-of-the-art European air tanker used to refuel fighter jets patrolling the Ukraine conflict has soared into the skies above the Northern Territory.

The NATO-nation flown air-to-air refueller has come to the Top End to train with 100 other military aircraft from 17 nations to increase interoperability.

Pilot Stijn Van Avermaet said it was a long flight south to the NT but the vast and clear airspace allowed crews to "train as we fight".

"Coming this far gives a chance to train with more Asian countries and Australia," the Belgian Air Component Commandant said.

"The more you train together the better the compatibility."

Based on an Airbus A330, the air tanker can refuel an array of jet fighters and heavy aircraft while carrying up to 276 passengers and 45 tonnes of cargo.

It is in the NT for the first time after completing a mission supporting jet fighters in the skies above Poland following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We started as soon as the crisis began ... within 24 to 48 hours we were airborne supporting NATO," Commandant Van Avermaet said.

"We would refuel all coalition partners that were airborne so they could extend their operation."

The crew has been carrying out the same role in the skies above the NT during mock battles for the Australian Defence Force's Exercise Pitch Black.

Jet fighters such as the German Luftwaffe's Eurofighter Typhoons refuel by flying within 25 metres of the tanker and attaching to a hose or boom that transfers avgas.

The risky operation is carried out multiple times per day at speeds of up to 500 kilometres and hour while flying at 26,000 feet above the earth.

"It's a fuel station that's taken airborne so all the jet fighters participating in the exercise ... can stay longer in flight," Commandant Van Avermaet said.

The tanker is part of a fleet of new versatile air-to-air refuelling aircraft operated by Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg.

Called the Multinational Multi Role Tanker Transport Unit, it is set to continue to grow as so-called partner nations pool resources to ensure they reduce their reliance on the US and continue to have access to the latest in military hardware.

"The advantage of having an international unit is it allows us to buy more aircraft with better capabilities," Commandant Van Avermaet said.

Exercise Pitch Black is a three-week multinational air warfare training operation in the skies above the NT involving 2500 personnel.

Pilots and ground crews from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States are taking part.

Also involved for the first time will be Australia's new F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, giving the RAAF's No 3 and 75 squadrons a chance to put the aircraft through their paces.

Most are operating out of the RAAF bases at Darwin and Tindal in the NT, with support from the Amberley base in Queensland.