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Top 12 Fastest and Biggest Aerial Refueling Aircraft in the World

Savio is a resident of Mumbai, India. Cars, bikes, and everything fast are his passion, and he writes about them on many sites.

Introduction

We had previously explored the fastest military aircraft, bombers, military drones and several other types of aircraft and their speeds. Talking about Aerial Tanker Aircraft though, the concept of speed would be redundant if we do not talk about the size. The logic isn’t difficult to understand. A refueling aircraft needs to be fast, but it wouldn’t be of much use if it is not able to carry enough fuel to refuel many fighters or bombers. Greater the fuel carrying capacity of an aerial tanker, lesser is the number of sorties required for refueling; also, lesser is the number of tanker aircraft required for refueling. However, at times, the strategy may demand that the aircraft be fast as compared to large and in such cases, we will end up having real agile and fast aircraft doubling up as an aerial tanker. As such, this list will have an interesting mix of aircraft.

While the list primarily looks at the fastest tanker aircraft, we will focus on their size too. The details under each aircraft will have their fuel carrying capacity as well. So, are we ready?

Let’s move on to the list.

List of Fastest and Largest Aerial Refueling Aircraft

Here are the fastest aerial refuelling aircraft. Each aircraft and more are shown below.

AircraftSpeed

Boeing F/A-18E and F Super Hornet

Mach 1.8 [1,381 mph or 2,223.6 kmph]

Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard

Mach 1.1 [748 mph or 1,205 kmph]

Boeing 747 – KC 747 [Largest Tanker]

Mach 0.92 [706 mph or 1,136.5 kmph]

McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender [Second Largest Tanker]

Mach 0.89 [682.9 mph or 1,099.5 kmph]

Boeing KC-46 Pegasus [Third Largest Tanker]

Mach 0.86 [659.7 mph or 1062 kmph]

Boeing KC-767

Mach 0.86 [659.7 mph or 1062 kmph]

Xian H-6

Mach 0.85 [652.2 mph or 1,050 kmph]

Airbus A310 MRTT

Mach 0.8 [613.6 mph or 987.9 kmph]

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

Mach 0.76 [580 mph or 933.8 kmph]

Vickers VC10

Mach 0.76 [580 mph or 933.8 kmph]

Airbus A330 MRTT

Mach 0.71 [546.6 mph or 880 kmph]

Ilyushin Il-78

Mach 0.69 [528 mph or 850 kmph]

1. Boeing F/A-18E and F Super Hornet

Super Hornet F-18F refueling F-18E

Super Hornet F-18F refueling F-18E

As mentioned in the introduction, few of the aircraft would appear out of place on this list, and here’s one of them. The Super Hornet is a multi-role fighter aircraft and its upgrade over the Hornet, saw it get many advanced features, including five uncharacteristic external fuel tanks. The Super Hornet, therefore, has the additional role of carrying buddy fuel depending on the needs of the mission.

  • Aircraft: Boeing F/A – 18 E and F Super Hornet
  • Speed Record: Mach 1.8 [1,381 mph or 2,223.6 kmph]
  • Role: Aerial Refueling System (ARS) or Buddy Store
  • Fuel Carriage: 5 External Fuel Tanks + Internal Storage
  • Fuel Volume: 3000 L only for buddy role
  • Total Built: 500
  • Status: In operation

The American navy felt the need for the additional role in light of their tanker aircraft of the time being retired. The Super Hornet fulfilled the role quite well, but it did increase the fatigue on the wings much faster than in roles not requiring it to carry external fuel. That notwithstanding, the Super Hornet was one extremely adaptive aircraft improving the range of the fighters in its formation, without needing to tie up with any other tanker.

2. Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

The Super Etendard is another aircraft which has a multi-role and carries a buddy tanker pod. It was built by the French Dassault and served few nations along with the French from 1978. It was recently retired from the French Navy arsenal with the introduction of the Rafael in 2016.

  • Aircraft: Dassault – Breguet Super Etendard
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.98 [748.8 mph or 1,205 kmph]
  • Role: Buddy Oil Refueling Pod
  • Fuel Carriage: 2 External Fuel Tanks
  • Fuel Volume: 625 L
  • Total Built: 85
  • Status: Retired in 2016

The Super Etendard also served the Argentine Navy and Iraqi Air Force, in the past.

3. Boeing KC - 747: Largest Tanker Ever

KC-747

KC-747

With the Boeing 747, we enter the realm of aircraft built for the sole purpose of refueling. Most of us would know the Boeing 747 as a wide-body commercial aircraft which we covered as one of the fastest among commercial passenger aircraft.

You can read about the Boeing 747 as a fast commercial aircraft here

The KC 747 is the Boeing in the military avatar. It happens to be the biggest tanker in the world. Here are the stats:

  • Aircraft: Boeing 747 [KC-747 Refueller version]
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.92 [706 mph or 1,136.5 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks
  • Fuel Volume: 190,000+ Liters
  • Total Built: 7 [Refueller only version]
  • Status: In Service with Iran. Retired from American Air Force

The Boeing 747 as a refueller tanker was used for a brief period before the KC – 10 was operational. It was in fact, competing with the KC-10 for the role and though was way bigger than the 707 or KC-135 (used till then), it lost out due to the high operation cost. As ironic as it may seem, there is just one surviving 747 in the refueller role, and it currently belongs to the Iranian military. How’s that for trivia?

4. McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender: Second Largest Tanker

KC - 10 Refueling a Hornet

KC - 10 Refueling a Hornet

The KC-747, which we just saw, and KC-10 were the result of America’s search for a bulk tanker under the Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft program. The 747’s inability to take-off from smaller runways and the higher cost of operation and maintenance tipped the balance in favour of the KC-10.

  • Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.89 [682.9 mph or 1,099.5 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks + Wing-mounted pods
  • Fuel Volume: 161,000+ Liters
  • Total Built: 60
  • Status: In Service

The KC-10 then went on to receive orders from the American military and two additional orders from Netherland.

5. Boeing KC-46 Pegasus: Third Largest Tanker

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

The KC-46 Pegasus won the USAF competition for the KC-X refueler program in 2011. The competition was to replace the ageing KC-135 Stratotankers. The KC-46 finds its roots in the Boeing KC-767, which was originally presented as an option for the KC-135, but never got selected. The KC-767 tanker also finds a mention in this article for interested readers.

Coming back to the KC-46, here are the stats:

  • Aircraft: Boeing KC-46 Pegasus
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.86 [659.7 mph or 1062 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks
  • Fuel Volume: 118,200 liters
  • Total Built: 100+ [Estimated]
  • Status: To enter service in 2019

The KC-46 is also in the running for Air Forces of Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Poland, UAE and South Korea. With the strong backing of the USAF orders, more countries may opt for the Pegasus soon.

6. Boeing KC - 767

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

The KC-767 was one aircraft which has a story of its own of why the USAF selected it in 2002 and why it cancelled the orders in 2006. Interested readers can read it here. The 767 was supposed to succeed the KC -135 but never got around to entering that role. Though losing the USAF orders, the KC-767 succeeded in meeting the requirements of the Italian Air Force. As such, Italy became the first country to own the KC-767.

  • Aircraft: Boeing KC-767
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.86 [659.7 mph or 1062 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks
  • Fuel Volume: 72,800 liters
  • Total Built: 11
  • Status: In Service

Japanese Air Force's KC-767: Best Refueling Video Ever!

The KC-767 was again in the reckoning with the KC-X program of the USAF in 2011. The USAF accepted the revised offering from Boeing under the KC-46 nomenclature. However, Italy, Japan, Brazil and Colombia still operate the KC-767 in its original tanker configuration.

7. Xian H-6

Under-wing Fuel Pod

Under-wing Fuel Pod

Xian H-6 which has its origins in the Russian Tupolev Tu-16 had been modified to suit multiple roles with PLAAF of China. We had first discussed the same aircraft as a subsonic bomber in China’s arsenal, and here we discuss it as a refueling aircraft; only here it is in the top three based on speed.

You can read about the Xian H-6 as a bomber here

  • Aircraft: Xian HY – 6 [Refuelling version of H-6]
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.85 [652.2 mph or 1,050 kmph]
  • Role: Underwing Refueling Pods
  • Fuel Carriage: 2 External Fuel Pods (Can be increased)
  • Fuel Volume: 18,500 kg
  • Total Built: 10 [Refueller only version]
  • Status: In Service

The Xian HY-6 formed the first air refueling aircraft for the PLAAF. The first version could do both the refueling and bomber function. The later versions were modified to act as refueling aircraft alone, increasing the volume of fuel it could carry. Now, at the beginning of this article, we had mentioned that the tankers have to be flying fast as well as refuel the fighters in a short time, and that role is done by the Xian HY-6 very well. It can refuel eight fighters within an hour when in flight; that is indeed quick!

8. Airbus A310 Multi Role Tanker Transport

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

Airbus A310 is another bulk refueler from the European arsenal. The A310 is the base for developing the A310 MRTT. Due to its inability to land and take-off from rough runways (or surfaces as encountered in combat zones), the 310 falls short of qualifying as a strategic refueller. The two fuel pods mounted on the wings can deliver the fuel at the rate of 1,500 litres per minute.

  • Aircraft: Airbus A310 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT)
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.8 [613.6 mph or 987.9 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks + Wing-mounted pods
  • Fuel Volume: 78,000+ kg
  • Total Built: Multiple A310 but around 12 MRTTs
  • Status: In Service. Aircraft A310 production discontinued

Currently, the German and Canadian Air Forces operate the Airbus A310. The larger A330 MRTT would most likely replace the A310 in the future.

9. Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-135A refueling a B-52 Bomber

KC-135A refueling a B-52 Bomber

The KC-135 Stratotanker (Strategic Tanker), along with the commercial liner 707, finds its genesis in the Boeing 367-80. It was built to replace the much older KC-97 and is one of the longest-serving tankers since 1957.

  • Aircraft: Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.76 [580 mph or 933.8 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks + Wing-mounted pods
  • Fuel Volume: 90,000+ kg
  • Total Built: 800+
  • Status: In Service

A KC-135 Refueling an F-35

It was the KC-135 that the Boeing 747 and the K-10 were competing to succeed. Eventually, the KC-10 took over the role but the USAF never completely phased out the KC-135. After a long time, in 2019, the KC-46 was selected as the tanker to succeed the KC-135.

10. Vickers VC10

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

The Vickers VC10 was a British built aircraft in the commercial and tanker role. It was in operation from 1962 to 2013 and was a cool looking aircraft for the tanker role. The tanker aircraft, though, was the conversion of older passenger aircraft and not one built specifically for the role.

  • Aircraft: Vickers VC10
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.76 [580 mph or 933.8 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks
  • Fuel Volume: 81,490 liters
  • Total Built: 54
  • Status: Discontinued from tanker role in 2013

The VC10 was replaced later by the Airbus A330 MRTT for the British Air Force refueler role. The V10 holds a record, which is hardly known, and that is for the fastest subsonic transatlantic flight. The VC10 did the distance between New York and Glasgow in 5 hours and 1 minute; that averages the speed to Mach 0.81, which is faster than the VC10’s recorded top speed. However, the strong tailwind, a particular trait of the New York – Europe air corridor, was the main reason for the additional speed.

Just for the record, the fastest subsonic flight from New York to London belongs to a Norwegian 787 Dreamliner which did it in 5 hours and 13 minutes.

11. Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

The Airbus A330 MRTT is based on the Airbus A330 and is much larger than the A310. The A330 was also one of the aircraft running to replace the USAF’s KC-135 in early 2000. Most countries operating the A310 MRTT will look at the A330 as a logical upgrade.

  • Aircraft: Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT)
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.71 [546.6 mph or 880 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tanks + Wing-mounted pods
  • Fuel Volume: 111,000 kg
  • Total Built: 60+
  • Status: In Service

By 2018, twelve countries had ordered the Airbus A330. The high fuel carrying capacity is one of the main reasons that many countries are looking at the A330 as their strategic air tanker.

12. Ilyushin Il-78

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

In a list dominated by European and American tankers, the Ilyushin Il-78 is the only Russian one; although the Xian H-6, in a way, is Russian. It has earned its place as a dependable and larger tanker than the II-76. The Il-78 is in service since 1983.

  • Aircraft: Ilyushin il-78
  • Speed Record: Mach 0.69 [528 mph or 850 kmph]
  • Role: Bulk Refueller
  • Fuel Carriage: Internal Fuel Tank
  • Fuel Volume: 85,720 kg
  • Total Built: 50+
  • Status: In Service

The Ilyushin, much like other tankers, has gone for an upgrade and the upgraded one was test flown in 2018. The upgraded craft is the Il-78M-90A and is expected to enter service by 2022.

Special Mention: MQ - 25

fastest-refueling-tanker-aircraft-in-the-world

Just about few decades back it was considered a big technological achievement to have a mid-air refueling done once the hose comes out of the tanker. The aligning of the fighters and the hose connecting with the fuel pod was a big thing; remember the tanker was still human flown. Now imagine the scenario where the tanker itself is automated. How’s that for technological progress? the progress has already happened. We are talking about the MQ – 25, the world’s first Unmanned Aerial Tanker.

  • Aircraft: Boeing MQ – 25
  • Speed Record: Mach 1 [Expected]
  • Role: Autonomous Refueler
  • Fuel Carriage: Mounted pods
  • Fuel Volume: Not Known
  • Total Built: Prototypes
  • Status: In development. Expected in service by 2020

This is the first and only automated fueler so far and is being tested for the U.S. Navy. Although the original requirement was for an F/A – 18 size refueler but the soon depleting fleet of refuelers combined with the fact that the range of current fighters with the navy was only 500 nautical miles, led to speeding up the MQ-25 program. The MQ – 25 is one of a kind at the moment.

MQ-25A First Flight

Refuel the Refueler [Back to Base]

Like I had mentioned at the beginning, these aircraft need not be excessively fast but fast enough to get the job done. At times, the history of how they came to be is more exciting than the speed at which they travel; like the KC-135 leading to KC-747 and KC-10, and later KC-10 being chosen over the KC-747. Exciting, isn’t it? That said, true to our theme, we have got the list of the fastest tanker aircraft. Hope you’ll enjoyed reading it!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Savio Koman