Earlier this year the Air Force floated the controversial idea of flying a KC-46A Pegasus refueling plane with just a two-person skeleton crew. This past week 22nd Air Refueling Wing decided to prove it could be done.

On Oct. 25 a crew of just a pilot and boom operator successfully flew a KC-46A Pegasus without a co-pilot. The experiment was done under a series of safety measures — the flight was inside testing airspace at the Utah Test and Training Range and a second pilot was onboard, although not in action, to serve as an observer. A second, fully crewed KC-46 also flew alongside the test crew as backup. The two-person crew pulled off two flights, first just a test run and then a full mission that included a successful mid-air refueling effort. 

“This mission was practiced extensively in flight simulators,” Col. Nate Vogel, commander of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing said in a statement on the successful flights. “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.”

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The idea of just a two-person crew for such a large aircraft might not be the safest or most cautious approach to using the refueling plane, but it’s one of the options the Air Force has been exploring as it looks into becoming more flexible in case of a major conflict. With the military considering what a war in the Indo-Pacific region could look like, the Air Force put this up as one of several plans to increase operational flexibility and reduce the number of airmen at risk. Air Mobility Command leader Gen. Mike Minihan has said that this aircraft crew set up could “generate the tempo required to win” such a conflict.

“I don’t think fighter pilots are the only ones that have the birthright to fly an airplane solo,” Minihan said at a conference earlier this year, as part of wider, almost tent revival-like speech.

During the flight the boom operator was inside the cockpit with the pilot. Usually the refueling plane carries a larger team—those two plus a co-pilot and additional airmen depending on the length of the mission. 

“I have been very clear with my team: victory will be delivered on the back of the mobility air forces, and doing so means taking a hard look at every tool we have at our disposal,” Minihan said in a statement after the successful flight in Utah.

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