An unmanned Boeing aircraft successfully refueled a US Navy fighter jet while in mid-flight for the first time in aviation history.
The combined US Air Force-Boeing refueling exercise last week demonstrated that the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray can carry out tanker missions utilizing the Navy's probe-and-drogue aerial refueling method, the US NAVAIR Public Affairs office announced in a statement.
“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” said Rear Adm. Brian Corey. Corey oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing, equipping our aircraft carriers with additional assets well into the future.”During the historic June 4 exercise, the Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet warplane made an approach to the MQ-25 T1 test asset and established a tight formation – at points coming in close to 20 feet behind the unmanned drone – to ensure peak “performance and stability prior to refueling,” Boeing said. The carrier-based twin-engine F/A-18 is also manufactured by Boeing, which offers multiple variants of the multi-role fighter jet to the United States military.
After the F/A-18 fighter pilot conducted a formation evaluation, wake survey and drogue tracking, the Boeing aircraft outstretched its hose to reach the drogue on the F/A-18, successfully plugging into and refueling the fighter jet while making history in the process.
Aviation history! “This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts.” #MQ25 is the first unmanned aircraft to ever refuel another aircraft. STORY➡️ https://t.co/ktUc25G7hW pic.twitter.com/1flwSBuMUD— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) June 7, 2021
The MQ-25 Stingray will eventually be the first operational "carrier-based" unmanned drone that will not only supply the US military with extended refueling capabilities, but also intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capacities “that greatly expand the global reach, operational flexibility and lethality of the carrier air wing and carrier strike group,” the Navy said.
“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.
“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,” Reed said.
Reed noted that the test operation provided early data for further missions of the sort, primarily isolating specifics on airwake interactions, in addition to guidance and control.
Testing with the MQ-25 T1 asset will continue over the next few months to include preliminary data on "flight envelope expansion, engine testing, and deck handling demonstrations” onboard a US naval aircraft carrier, the Navy said.
Boeing was awarded a contract in 2018 to design and develop aircraft to carry out these types of unmanned refueling missions for future naval operations. Boeing noted that the MQ-25 Stingray is a "predecessor" to the seven-test aircraft the manufacturer is designing under the terms of the 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,” said Boeing.