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Currently Australia is deploying F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to the UAE to fight in Iraq. Obviously the UAE (and Iraq) is a very long way from Australia and well beyond the typical range of one of these aircraft.

On TV they literally showed the Australian Prime Minister waving goodbye while the jets took off and flew into the distance, which for some reason seemed odd and made me wonder about how fighter jets are typically ferried to a distant war.

I kind of assumed they were loaded onto an aircraft carrier and shipped there, but Australia doesn't have an aircraft carrier so obviously this isn't the case.

I assume they must therefore fly, but:

  • Do they fly hop to hop within their usual range refuelling at each stop? Where would these stops be? I assume they can't just refuel at a civilian airport in an arbitrary country and would have to be an air force base belonging to a close ally.
  • Do they fly continuously with aerial refuelling? Does the tanker need to make hops to refuel?
  • Do they swap their weapons for extended fuel tanks which provide enough range to fly continuously to the UAE?
  • Are they actually shipped via regular military cargo ship and the "departure" on TV just for show?
  • If they do fly continuously, it seems like flying non-stop for ~13 hours in a cramped fighter pilot cockpit would be unreasonable (even commercial pilots take shifts), or would they fly supersonic and perhaps reduce this to 5 or 6 hours?

Answers don't necessarily have to be Australia -> UAE specific, I'd also be interested to know how the US deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for example and if the process is consistent or depends on the aircraft and location.

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    $\begingroup$ To fly the planes across half the globe is easy. The hard part is to ferry all the rest there in time, so operations can start soon. You wouldn't believe how many tons of equipment and how many people are needed to keep one modern fighter aircraft flying. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Sep 19 '14 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly, flying the fighters there is easy, the real question is how do you get the bombs, replacement parts, and service personnel there. $\endgroup$ – GdD Sep 19 '14 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Another (much more expensive and only used as a last resort) option is to put them in a C-5 Galaxy. In a situation where an F-18 was damaged to the point of being unflyable on its own, the USAF took its wings and stabilizer fins off and flew it back to the U.S. in a C-5. $\endgroup$ – reirab Sep 19 '14 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD this is very true. As a USAF veteran who had F-15 mechanic friends, each hour in the air requires two hours of maintenance on the ground. Plus, all those mechanics and pilots need tons of support: food, barracks, parts, etc. I tell people that out of over 300k Airmen, over 290k are not pilots or aircrew. I can only answer "what kind of plane did you fly?" with "a desk" so many times. $\endgroup$ – user3305 Sep 20 '14 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ @paul, support staff are easy, a couple of C130 loads or a couple of chartered airliner or two. Although you can fly engines, spare parts, and even weapons, it's much more economical to put them on a ship. $\endgroup$ – GdD Sep 21 '14 at 18:47
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To answer the list in order:

Do they fly hop to hop?

An F-18 can go 3,000km unloaded (ordnance adds a lot of drag) and that's plenty from Australia. You can get to the Middle East in 4 hops, no air-to-air refuelling required. Although if you do an in-flight top-up you can add more than the regular range because you don't need to burn any fuel getting back up to cruise altitude.

Where would these stops be? Surely not at civilian airports?

Military aircraft often use civilian airports - they run on Jet-A just like everything else. Fighters were not an uncommon sight at the general-aviation terminal where I'm from. Loaded warplanes are a political issue, unloaded ones are a good day's business for the airport's fuel merchants. (note that fighters are almost never completely unloaded - the ammunition for the gun has a significant effect on the airplane's trim. But you can't see it.)

An external fuel tank can be added in place of weapons.

Are they actually shipped via regular military cargo ship?

Fixed-wing aircraft are typically not boxed for surface shipping. Helicopters are - no wings to remove and rotors can be folded up very easily. Carrier-based aircraft will depart from land - the only way you get a Hornet off of a docked carrier is with a crane, so they typically launch everything when still offshore, and load the aircraft the same way on departure.

The USA has enough carriers that they would not deploy a carrier-based fleet like this. If they are adding / replacing aircraft there are probably enough already in Europe - send those where needed and replace them in the normal course of events.

Would they fly supersonic to reduce travel time?

No, they won't go supersonic to reduce the flight time. > Mach 1 consumes so much fuel you'd never get there. Fighters have supersonic capability so they can get there or run away as needed, but it's never used for very long. The Concorde was designed from the beginning for Mach 2 cruise, so it didn't use afterburners once at Mach 2. Subsonic flight suffered as a result, fighters would not accept the subsonic flight handling issues as that's rather important to them :-)

Bombers are often deployed directly from home bases. All modern strategic bombers have global range with in-flight refuelling. You don't leave North Dakota, blow up something in Longwayfromherestan and get home for dinner, but you don't land anywhere else either. Yes, it's many hours in the same seat but the military crews are used to it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Given all this info, my guess would be that OP's TV takeoffs were heading to meet up with their carrier offshore. Also, in terms of "butt in seat" time for a bomber on a long haul - those cockpits are probably much confier than tiny fighters would be. $\endgroup$ – hairboat Sep 20 '14 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ @abbyhairboat except australia has no carriers for conventional fixed wing aircraft (harriers, yes). $\endgroup$ – flyingfisch Sep 20 '14 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ "bomber...those cockpits are probably much confier than tiny fighters would be" - Bomber crews are strapped into ejection seats too. But they can get up. $\endgroup$ – radarbob Sep 21 '14 at 6:38
  • $\begingroup$ @flyingfisch just a turn of phrase- I meant that the matter of what the fighters were doing taking off on TV is more complicated than I originally thought. $\endgroup$ – hairboat Sep 21 '14 at 7:55
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    $\begingroup$ Aren't the Aussie F/A-18s equipped for In-Flight Refueling? In which case they'd take off from a runway, stay at altitude for a LONG time, hit a tanker or two along the way and finally land at the destination. When my (USAF) unit deployed F-16s to the Sandbox, that's what we did. A bunch of Vipers and a KC-10 full of fuel, personnel and equipment. The autopilot works well enough that the pilots don't get too fatigued (energy drinks help). May have to use a "piddle pack," though. $\endgroup$ – Meower68 Dec 4 '14 at 20:40
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I am former fighter pilot:

We often fly "hop to hop" but depending on the total distance, the need for urgency, and the distance over water we also fly with tankers and air refuel. Of course the tankers sometimes don't have the fuel for themselves and for us. In those cases, we'll just leave one tanker and rendezvous with another tanker enroute. Everything is very carefully planned. The longest I spent in an F-16 seat was 14 hours. It wasn't too bad.

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    $\begingroup$ It's funny. Flying an F-16 has a glamorous and dangerous image. 14 hours alone with nothing to look at but a clear sky sounds... kind of boring. $\endgroup$ – Level River St Sep 19 '14 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Chris, what altitude and airspeed do you maintain during long flights? Is it in the order of FL500+? $\endgroup$ – shortstheory Sep 27 '14 at 6:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Chris Do you guys have to plan alternate airports too for these logistic placement flights? It'd be mighty uncomfy to ditch a multimillion jet because your target hop airport shut down. $\endgroup$ – curious_cat Mar 11 '15 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @steveverrill except you have what, better than 180º of view around you. That's a heck of a lot cooler than the teeny windows you get on your run of the mill airliner... $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Jul 27 '15 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ @steveverrill - as they say, "War is weeks of interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror". Peace is the same, but more... :-) $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis Feb 17 '16 at 17:44
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Ferry range of an FA18-E/F (with ferry tanks attached) is ~ 1800nm.

There are any number of possible routes from YAMB to DHF. The choice of route will be influenced by weather, speed, and politics (third country over flight and landing rights). It is possible, also, to mix ferry and refueling.

One could, for example, do YAMB-DCN-CCK-NWK-DHF (see image below) with a mid-air refueling between NWK & DHF if one wanted, for whatever reason, to avoid landing in India or Sri Lanka.

enter image description here

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Good Question! They are typically flown in legs from Australia, or if long distance over water, conduct air - air refuelling.

The Super Hornets you are talking about will most likely stop at somewhere like Butterworth in Malaysia, then fly onto Dubai, possibly meeting with the MRTT sent the day before to refuel enroute.

Australia does not have any Aircraft Carriers so sadly, we have to ferry flight them everywhere.

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They may do hop to hop or they may use inflight refueling.

Of course that opens up the problem of the tankers having enough fuel. Not all tankers can re-fuel in the air, but some can.

When the RAF did the Black Buck raids in the Falklands war (~12000km), they were offered the use of US Stratotankers. They decided it would not work because the Stratotankers cold not refuel in the air (perhaps they can now, I do not know).

They used their own Victors, which refueled each other, ultimately leaving the Vulcan to carry on on its own.

Alternatively, you could use tankers that are already positioned on route, which was the USAF does when it B-52 strike the middle east from their bases in continental US

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  • $\begingroup$ Whats the point of having a tanker that cannot refuel midair. It is the fact that they use different refueling system and that makes one useless tanker. $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Mar 15 '15 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ The really interesting story was the initial Vulcan raid on the Port Stanley airfield. One Vulcan, twelve Victors to refuel the Vulcan and each other, and they had only a couple of weeks to practice Vulcan aerial refueling, which they hadn't done in ages. They pulled it off. Good doc on this on youtube. $\endgroup$ – tj1000 Sep 13 '17 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ @tj1000 they also had to re-add the capability to the Vulcans too. Part of the re-fueling probe was being used as an ash tray in the mess at a nearby airfield apparently $\endgroup$ – chriscowley Sep 19 '17 at 15:38
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You can't land just any plane on an aircraft carrier, it has to have tail hooks and the pilot needs special training. The Aussie F/A-18s are not equipped to land on aircraft carriers. So they have to do short 'hops' or in flight re-fuel.

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    $\begingroup$ The bigger issue here is that Australia doesn't have any aircraft carriers to land on. $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Mar 11 '15 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ @raptortech97 I am surprised that Australia does not have aircraft carriers, any reason $\endgroup$ – Firee Mar 11 '15 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Firee en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMAS_Melbourne_(R21)#HMS_Invincible ... Canada doesn't either, nor Japan, nor any country in the Middle East nor Africa ... only about 15 countries do. $\endgroup$ – ChrisW Mar 11 '15 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, Japan sort of has carriers, they just don't call them that. They're called the Hyuga class 'helicopter destroyers', although an F35B could also operate from them. I'm sure that never occurred to the IJN when they built those 'helicopter destroyers'... $\endgroup$ – tj1000 Sep 13 '17 at 6:40
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These articles [1, 2] from The Register describe the procedure followed, when a couple of F-35 jet were delivered from the US to the UK. Crossing the Atlantic in a peace-time delivery could well be compared with moving fighters from their home base towards a base nearer to the theather of conflict.

In one of the articles several means of delivery are discussed: direct crossing, fly a more overland route (as in pre ETOPS times), or delivery by ship.

Direct flight With a direct long-haul flight, you need to take air refueling into account and take precautions for the case when something goes wrong. Especially, with single-engine planes. Thus, the F-35s were accompanied by tankers and a A-400 M to provide sea rescue capabilities.

Overland route An overland route is the safe option for non-ETOPS planes. However, this involves a lot of diplomatic activity. In contrast to civil aviation, armed forces are supposed to ask prior to entering other countries' air space.

Delivery by ship This is by far the safest option. However, this involves some logistics. First, (partial) disassembly, shipping and re-assembly at their destination. While being very safe, this is the least glamorous way to Air Force business.

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    $\begingroup$ Even being carried by ship carries some risks. This brand-new railway locomotive was damaged beyond economic repair when it was dropped while being unloaded. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jun 8 '18 at 19:07
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Generally fighters will fly long ferry routes together as a squadron with multiple tanker rendezvous enroute for fuel. Most of the squadron personnel and equipment will be airlifted in cargo aircraft to the base of operations but the fighters will be flown there by the pilots. Flight planning generally dictates alternate land bases must be within flying range as well in the event an aircraft in the flight cannot successfully tank. Cruise speeds for ferry flights are not supersonic but in the Mach 0.8-0.9 range.

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Generally, ferry flights are done with aux tanks when possible, and no ordnance on the aircraft. The logistics are influenced by the urgency, the geo political situation, the location of friendly countries, their assets, and airports to land at, and staffing.

Ferry flights are preferred over boats for many aircraft, as once an aircraft is on a boat is is typically not available for a period of time, and needs special equipment to load and off load.

Logistics has to handle overflight permits, etc. and rapidly deployed aircraft will often have over water routing to reduce permit requirements. Additionally there may be some interest in reduced media coverage. Landing 16 fighters in Dubai to top the tanks is not done except where the visibility is desired, and most stops are done at bases or bases of allied forces.

It is noteworthy that certain flights, for example, B-2 runs, are originated out of mid-continent US, and return to that base afterwards. They are supported by tankers, and in the case of the B-2 it avoids the risk of landing a plane at a remote location.

For the US and allied forces, there is coordination by logistics, so that Navy assets are tasked with providing support in the unlikely event of off shore crew recovery, support, etc. For example, I know that US Navy has been advised of AUS deployments, and provides offshore services for asset movements.

Such movements are routine. For example, a NY Guard unit has supported South Pole NSF operations, and the C-130 used is ferried from New York to the South Pole and back after the missions are complete.

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