Boeing test drone refuels US Navy F/A-18 in-flight

Aviation history was made on June 4, 2021, when a protoype unmanned Boeing aerial tanker successfully refuelled a US Navy fighter jet as part of an air-to-air refuelling mission involving the Boeing test asset.

The unmanned Boeing MQ-25 T1 drone successfully refuelled a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet flying in Illinois.

The MQ-25 is a predecessor to the seven test aircraft Boeing is manufacturing under a 2018 contract with the US Navy.

During the June 4 test flight, the Boeing MQ-25 successfully extended a hose and drogue and safely transferred jet fuel to the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

During the initial part of the test flight, the F/A-18 test pilot flew in close formation behind the unmanned 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 and the F/A-18 refuelling probe.

Fuel offload

With the evaluation mode 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.

Both aircraft were flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes.

The aviation milestone comes after 25 MQ-25 T1 flights, testing both aircraft and ARS aerodynamics across the flight envelope, as well as extensive simulations of aerial refuelling using MQ-25 digital models.

Rear Adm. Brian Corey, who oversees the Programme Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons for the US Navy, said: “This team of professionals was integral in the successful flight.

“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,” he added.

Leanne Caret, President and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, noted: “This history-making event is a credit to our joint Boeing and [US] Navy team that is all-in on delivering MQ-25’s critical aerial refuelling capability to the fleet as soon as possible.”

The MQ-25 T1 will continue flight testing, prior to beginning deck handling trials aboard a US Navy carrier later this year.

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