The US Navy and Boeing have demonstrated air-to-air refueling using an unmanned aircraft, the MQ-25 T1, the first time ever an aerial refuelling has been carried out unmanned.
Boeing’s MQ-25 T1 test asset completed the refuelling operation during a test flight on June 4, successfully extending a hose and drogue from its aerial refueling store (ARS) and safely transferring jet fuel to a F/A-18 Super Hornet.The MQ-25 is also known as Stingray.
Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security said, “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 refueling capability to the fleet as soon as possible.
“Their work is the driving force behind the safe and secure integration of unmanned systems in the immediate future of defense operations.”
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 20ft (6m) of separation between the MQ-25 T1 air vehicle and the F/A-18 refueling probe.
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. According to Boeing both aircraft were flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes during the maneuver.
The MQ-25 T1 test aircraft has been flown 25 times since its first flight in September 2019, testing both the aircraft and ARS’s aerodynamics across the flight envelope. Simulations of aerial refueling using MQ-25 digital models have also been conducted.
MQ-25 T1 will continue flight testing before being shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, for deck handling trials aboard a US Navy carrier later this year.
The MQ-25 Stingray has been in development for more than ten years as a drone to be used from the US Navy’s aircraft carriers. It was initially developed to have a strike and reconnaissance capability but has been modified for the aerial refuelling of F/A-18s and other carrier-based aircraft to increase their strike range.
The T1 test asset is the only test aircraft to be developed so far. The ARS was supplied by Cobham and was first flown on the MQ-25 T1 last December.
The MQ-25 T1 is a predecessor to seven test aircraft Boeing is manufacturing under a 2018 contract award from the US Navy.