Boeing has partnered with the U.S. Navy to demonstrate air-to-air refuelling using an unmanned aircraft for the first time.
During a test flight, on 04 June, the Boeing-owned MQ-25 T1 successfully extended the hose and drogue from its U.S. Navy-issued aerial refuelling store (ARS) and safely transferred jet fuel to a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet. The trial demonstrated the MQ-25 Stingray’s ability to carry out its primary aerial refuelling mission.
Initially, the F/A-18 test pilot flew in close formation behind MQ-25 to ensure performance and stability prior to refuelling. This manoeuvre required as little as 20 feet of separation between the MQ-25 T1 UAV and the F/A-18 refuelling probe.
According to Boeing, both aircraft were flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes. With the evaluation safely completed, the MQ-25 drogue was extended, and the F/A-18 pilot moved in to “plug” with the UAV to receive the scheduled fuel offload.
The collaboration said this milestone comes after 25 T1 flights, testing both aircraft and ARS aerodynamics across the flight envelope, as well as simulations of aerial refuelling using MQ-25 digital models.
“This history-making event is a credit to our joint Boeing and Navy team that is all-in on delivering MQ-25’s critical aerial refuelling capability to the fleet as soon as possible,” said Leanne Caret, president of Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
“Their work is the driving force behind the safe and secure integration of unmanned systems in the immediate future of defence operations.”
The Boeing-owned T1 test asset is a predecessor to the seven test aircraft Boeing is manufacturing under a 2018 contract award. The MQ-25 will assume the tanking role currently performed by F/A-18s, allowing for better use of the combat strike fighters and helping extend the range of the carrier air wing.
MQ-25 T1 will continue flight testing prior to being shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, for deck handling trials aboard a U.S. Navy carrier later this year.
Brian Corey, who oversees the program executive office for unmanned aviation and strike weapons for the U.S. Navy, added: “This team of professionals was integral in the successful flight. Over the next few years, we will work side-by-side with Boeing to deliver this capability that will greatly enhance the future carrier air wing.”