Boeing and US Navy conduct air-to-air refuelling with UAV

The US Navy and Boeing have made aviation history with the first air-to-air refuelling using an unmanned aircraft.

During a test flight on June 4, a Boeing MQ-25 T1 successfully extended the hose and drogue from its navy-issued aerial refuelling store (ARS) and 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 refuelling mission.

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“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 and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security.

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 refuelling – a manoeuvre that required as little as 20 feet of separation between the MQ-25 T1 air vehicle and the F/A-18 refuelling probe.

According to Boeing, both aircraft were flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes when the MQ-25 drogue was extended, and the F/A-18 pilot moved in to ‘plug’ with the unmanned aircraft to receive fuel.

“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,” said Rear Admiral Brian Corey, program executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons.

The 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. MQ-25 T1 will continue flight testing prior to being shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, for deck handling trials aboard a US Navy aircraft 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-25 will assume the refuelling role currently performed by F/A-18s, allowing for better use of the combat strike fighters.