DEVELOPMENT of the next generation of aircraft which will fly from RAF Brize Norton is gathering speed, with air-to-air refuelling trials bringing together a Voyager tanker plane and an Airbus A400M transport.

The Voyagers are replacing veteran VC10s and Tristars at the west Oxfordshire air station, the RAF’s biggest base, with the first plane becoming operational in April.

They can carry 100,000 litres of fuel and pump it to other planes at a rate of 5,000 litres a minute, 125 times the speed of petrol station pumps.

The A400M, which can carry 32 tonnes of cargo or 100 paratroops, is expected to join the RAF from 2014, taking the place of the oldest Lockheed Hercules transport planes operating from Brize Norton.

Carterton’s new mayor Adrian Coomber said: “It is good news for RAF Brize Norton, good news for defence in general and obviously good news for the town.

“RAF Brize Norton is the largest employer in the town and with the advances in modern aircraft it also reduces the noise footprint that the base generates.”

Last month, test pilots from Airbus Military carried out 30 “dry contact” tests in the skies above south-west France, where the crew of an A400M prototype placed the aircraft’s fuel receiver into the nozzle of a fuel line trailing behind a Voyager, although no liquid was transferred.

An Airbus spokesman said: “The tests demonstrated the stability of both aircraft when flying in close formation and when refuelling.”

The Voyager, which can also be used to transport up to 300 troops or 45 tonnes of cargo, is based on the Airbus A330-200 airliner.

The plane used in the refuelling trials was the first of 14 Voyagers to be leased to the RAF by the Airtanker consortium under a £10.5bn, 27-year Private Finance Initiative contract.

The fifth plane of the RAF order took its first test flight from Airbus’s factory at Toulouse, in France, last week.

In a separate round of tests last week, an A400M prototype underwent landing and take-off trials on a grass airstrip to test its ability to operate on rough ground away from surfaced runways.

The tests at Cottbus-Drewitz, in eastern Germany, included a series of emergency stops during take-off runs.

Although soft ground on the airstrip curtailed the tests early, Airbus said: “The aircraft’s general behaviour on the rougher surfaces typical on grass runways and anti-skid braking characteristics were excellent.”

The RAF is expected to take delivery of more than 20 of the planes to replace the ageing Hercules C130Ks being flown from Brize Norton by 47 Squadron.

The newer Hercules C130Js operated by 24 Squadron and 30 Squadron will remain in service beyond 2020.