Video shows MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker refueling an F-35C Lightning II for the first time

Video shows MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker refueling an F-35C Lightning II for the first time

By Dario Leone
Sep 15 2021
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On Sep. 13, 2021 the integrated Navy and Boeing MQ-25 team, in coordination with the F-35 program, conducted the refueling flight near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois.

As the video in this post shows, the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation (PMA-268) program completed its first aerial refueling of an F-35C Lightning II aircraft by the Boeing-owned MQ-25 test asset, known as T1, as part of the Navy’s broader initiative to field unmanned systems that transform and enhance the fleet’s capability, capacity and lethality.

According to a NAVAIR news release, on Sep. 13, 2021 the integrated Navy and Boeing MQ-25 team, in coordination with the F-35 program, conducted the refueling flight near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois.

“Every T1 flight with another Type/Model/Series aircraft gets us one step closer to rapidly delivering a fully mission-capable MQ-25 to the fleet,” said Capt. Chad Reed, the Navy’s PMA-268 program manager. “Stingray’s unmatched refueling capability is going to increase the Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the carrier strike group commanders.”

This event marked the third refueling flight for the T1 test aircraft. During the three-hour flight, a Navy F-35C pilot from Air Test Wing and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) approached T1, performed formation evaluations, wake surveys, drogue tracking and plugged with the MQ-25 test asset at 225 knots calibrated airspeed (KCAS) and altitude of 10,000 feet. From the ground control station, an air vehicle operator then initiated the fuel transfer from T1’s aerial refueling store to the F-35C.

Once operational, MQ-25 will refuel every receiver-capable carrier-based aircraft. Each unique aircraft platform will have a different aerodynamic interaction in the wake of MQ-25. Conducting refueling test missions with various aircraft allows the program to analyze data and determine if any adjustments to guidance and control are required.

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Earlier this summer, the program completed unmanned refueling missions with an F/A-18 Super Hornet and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Each aircraft platform is aerodynamically unique so how they respond in the wake of a tanker is different.

Following this flight, T1 will enter into a modification period to integrate the deck handling system in preparation for a shipboard demonstration this winter. To date, T1 has conducted 36 flights, providing the program with valuable information on aerodynamics, propulsion, guidance and control in advance of the MQ-25 engineering and manufacturing development aircraft deliveries.

The 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.

Along with organic tanking, the MQ-25 will pave the way for manned and unmanned teaming (MUM-T) of carrier-based aircraft that will extend the strike range and enhance maneuverability.

Photo credit: Boeing


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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