I know that it’s “normal.” I know that it’s something military aviators do every day. Air-to-air refueling, even with helicopters, is vital and necessary and even routine for a lot of operations. But all of those whirling blades and fuel hoses still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
The idea behind it is simple, if a bit more complicated than normal air-to-air refueling with two functioning airplanes, each with at least two functioning wings. If you drive the helicopter fast enough, and if you drive the airplane slow enough, and if you shove a big enough stick, AKA the fueling probe, out far enough from the helicopter’s frantically spinning blades of death, then you should be able to get fuel into the helicopter without cutting the tanker’s fuel hose.
And while you may think that’s a dicey proposition, what with how slow helicopters tend to go and how fast airplanes tend to go, it’s actually not so bad. This helicopter in particular, an H225M from the French Air Force, tops out at around 170 mph. The tanker it’s re-fueling from, a special operations variant of the U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane known as an MC-130J Commando II, should have a stall speed of as little as 115 mph. So there’s plenty of overlap in terms of speed.
The MC-130 isn’t just a flying gas station, however. It’s got “terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radars capable of operations as low as 250 feet in adverse weather conditions,” according to the U.S. Air Force, with extra strengthening in the tail for high-speed airdrops and electronic systems to help it avoid getting shot down.
This particular bit of helicopter air-to-air refueling came during Exercise Dark Dune 18 between the American and French air forces. In addition to all the helicopter stuff, it also featured “military free fall airborne operations.”