WHILE the familiar sights and sounds of VC10 tanker planes disappeared from the skies of West Oxfordshire with their retirement last month, a new generation of RAF aircraft is making its mark.

The replacement Voyager tanker and transport planes have stepped into the gap, with six of the eventual 14-strong fleet now available to the RAF.

The first of the air station’s new Airbus A400M Atlas transport planes is about to take shape in Spain after its wings arrived in Seville from the UK.

Problems with in-flight refuelling of Typhoon and Tornado strike jets during Voyager testing have been overcome.

Almost 1,000 tonnes of fuel have been transferred from Voyagers to Typhoons in mid-air since August. More than 1,300 tonnes have been pumped into the tanks of Tornadoes in mid-air since June.

Phil Blundell, the chief executive of AirTanker, which employs 500 civilian staff and military personnel at Brize Norton, said the Voyager programme was now making “very real progress”.

It is due to be fully operational by May next year, allowing the withdrawal of Lockheed Tristar tankers, converted from airliners built in the early 1970s.

Mr Blundell added: “Release to service with the Typhoon represented an important step forward for Voyager, clearing the fast jet programme.

“Our service and the infrastructure is now there, while six of the aircraft that make up the core nine-strong Voyager fleet have been delivered.

“We have a very tangible capability.”

The RAF will have first call on the five other Voyagers but they will be available to other operators if not needed for military duties.

The planes, converted from Airbus A300-200 airliners, can carry up to 291 passengers or more than 40 tonnes of cargo, as well as 111 tonnes of fuel.

They will be joined at Brize Norton next year by the first of the RAF’s order for 22 Atlas turboprop transport aircraft, to replace the Hercules fleet.

The Atlas’s wings were transported by ship from Airbus’s plant near Bristol, to the company’s aircraft plant in Seville this month, arriving days after the first of the planes off the production line was delivered to the French Air Force.

A prototype A400M recently came through tough tests on a gravel runway at Ablitas in Spain, with minimal damage from stones.

Brize Norton is already preparing for the Atlas’s arrival, with air loadmasters from XXIV Squadron travelling to Seville for a nine-week course at Airbus Military’s training centre, while RAF technicians are working at the French plane’s base near Orleans.

A new building has gone up at Brize Norton to house an Atlas flight simulator and the first Atlas aircrew will join XXIV Squadron at the base this month.