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Boeing MQ-25 first to conduct unmanned aerial tanking

by Dario Leone
Boeing MQ-25 first to conduct unmanned aerial tanking

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.

For the first time in history, the U.S. Navy and Boeing have demonstrated air-to-air refueling using an unmanned aircraft – the Boeing-owned MQ-25 T1 test asset – to refuel another aircraft.

During a test flight that took place on Jun. 4, 2021 MQ-25 T1 successfully extended the hose and drogue from its US Navy-issued aerial refueling store (ARS) and safely transferred jet fuel to a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet, demonstrating the MQ-25 Stingray’s ability to carry out its primary aerial refueling mission.

“This team of professionals was integral in the successful flight,” said Rear Adm. Brian Corey, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, in a Boeing news release. “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.”

During the initial part of the flight, the F/A-18 test pilot flew in close formation behind MQ-25 to ensure performance and stability prior to refueling – a maneuver that required as little as 20 feet of separation between the MQ-25 T1 air vehicle and the F/A-18 refueling probe. 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 unmanned aircraft and receive the scheduled fuel offload.

“This is our mission, an unmanned aircraft that frees our strike fighters from the tanker role, and provides the Carrier Air Wing with greater range, flexibility and capability,” said Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office (PMA-268), in a NAVAIR news release. “Seeing the MQ-25 fulfilling its primary tasking today, fueling an F/A-18, is a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet.”

The test flight will provide important early data on airwake interactions, as well as guidance and control, Reed said. The team will analyze that data to determine if any adjustments are needed and make software updates early, with no impact to the program’s test schedule.

The milestone comes after 25 T1 flights, testing both aircraft and ARS aerodynamics across the flight envelope, as well as extensive simulations of aerial refueling using MQ-25 digital models. MQ-25 T1 will continue flight testing prior to being shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, for deck handling trials aboard a US Navy carrier later this year.

The Boeing-owned T1 test asset is a predecessor to the seven test aircraft Boeing is manufacturing under a 2018 contract award.

The MQ-25A Stingray will be the world’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft and provide critical aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities that greatly expand the global reach, operational flexibility and lethality of the carrier air wing and carrier strike group. The MQ-25 is foundational to the Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework and is the first step toward a future fleet augmented by unmanned systems to pace the evolving challenges of the 21st century.

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.

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Photo credit: Kevin Flynn / Boeing

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