MQ-25 completes first flight with aerial refuelling store

Boeing and the US Navy passed a significant milestone in the MQ-25 Stingray’s development programme on December 9, when the test asset flew with Cobham’s aerial refuelling store (ARS) for the first time.

The prototype unmanned aerial refuelling system, registration N234MQ ‘T1’, successfully completed the two-and-a-half-hour flight, which was conducted to test the aircraft’s aerodynamics with Cobham’s ARS mounted under its portside wing. The sortie was controlled by Boeing test pilots from a ground control station at MidAmerica St Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois.

MQ-25 with Cobham ARS [Boeing]
Boeing's MQ-25 Stingray test asset, registration N234MQ 'T1', completed a test flight equipped with Cobham's aerial refuelling store (ARS) on December 9, 2020. Boeing

Boeing and the US Navy will now continue to test the aerodynamics of the MQ-25 and the ARS at various points of the unmanned aircraft’s flight envelope. Following this, the platform will begin extension and retraction trials of the ARS’ hose and drogue air-to-air refuelling system, which is also employed by the navy’s Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet.

Capt Chad Reed, the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program manager, said: “Having a test asset flying with an ARS gets us one big step closer in our evaluation of how [the] MQ-25 will fulfil its primary mission in the fleet – aerial refuelling. T1 will continue to yield valuable early insights as we begin flying with F/A-18s and conduct deck handling testing aboard a carrier.”

Boeing’s MQ-25 T1 test asset serves as a predecessor to the engineering development model aircraft, which is currently being produced under a 2018 contract award. The company states that “T1 is being used for early learning and discovery, laying the foundation for moving rapidly into development and test of the MQ-25.” T1 first flew on September 19, 2019 and had accumulated approximately 30 test flight hours before it took to the skies with Cobham’s ARS.

MQ-25 with Cobham ARS [Boeing]
When operational, Boeing's MQ-25 Stingray will be equipped with two Cobham ARS', with one mounted under both the port and starboard wing. Boeing

Dave Bujold, Boeing’s MQ-25 programme director, added: “To see T1 fly with the hardware and software that makes [the] MQ-25 an aerial refueller this early in the programme is a visible reminder of the capability we’re bringing to the carrier deck. We’re ensuring the ARS and the software operating it will be ready to help [the] MQ-25 extend the range of the carrier air wing.”

In April 2020, the US Navy exercised a contract option to acquire an additional three MQ-25 Stingrays, bringing the number of aircraft that Boeing will initially produce to seven. The service intends to procure 72 aircraft to fulfil its requirement for a dedicated air-to-air refuelling capability – a role which is currently performed by F/A-18s using buddy stores.