MQ-25 refuels F/A-18F in historic first

Boeing’s MQ-25A Stingray test asset marked a historic milestone on June 4, when the platform conducted the first-ever aerial refuelling operation between an unmanned tanker and a manned receiver aircraft.

This successful flight took place from MidAmerica St Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, and demonstrated the Stingray’s ability to fulfil its future tanker mission using the US Navy’s standard probe-and-drogue air-to-air refuelling method. During the operation, the test asset – registration N234MQ (T1) – successfully transferred fuel from its Cobham-produced Aerial Refueling Store (ARS) to a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet, marking the first time an unmanned platform had refuelled a manned aircraft – an important milestone for the US Navy’s MQ-25 programme.

MQ-25A refuels F/A-18F [Boeing/Kevin Flynn]
Boeing's MQ-25 test asset - registration N234MQ (T1) - refuels a US Navy-operated F/A-18F Super Hornet - BuNo 166969 'SD-123' (c/n F244) - during a test flight over Illinois on June 4, 2021. This operation marked the first time an unmanned tanker had refuelled a manned receiver aircraft. Boeing/Kevin Flynn

Rear Adm Brian Corey, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons with the US Navy, said: “This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts. [The] 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.”

Prior to making wet contact with the Boeing-owned MQ-25 test asset, the US Navy-operated F/A-18F – BuNo 166969 ‘SD-123’ (c/n F244) – conducted a formation evaluation, wake survey and drogue tracking process before connecting with the unmanned tanker. The Super Hornet, which is assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) ‘Salty Dogs’, subsequently received fuel from the Stingray.

Capt Chad Reed, program manager for the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation programme office (PMA-268) noted that this test flight will provide important early data on airwake interactions, as well as on guidance and control processes. The PMA-268 team will not analyse said data to determine if any are adjustments are needed, allowing for software updates to be made to the MQ-25 without impacting the programme’s test schedule.

MQ-25A refuels F/A-18F [Boeing/Kevin Flynn]
The US Navy and Boeing provided a glimpse of future Carrier Air Wing operations on June 4, 2021, following the first aerial refuelling operation between an MQ-25A and an F/A-18F. The navy intends to procure up to 72 Stingrays to serve as a dedicated carrier-based tanker aircraft. Boeing/Kevin Flynn

“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. Seeing the MQ-25 fulfilling its primary tasking today, fuelling an F/A-18, is a significant and exciting moment for the navy and shows concrete progress toward realising [the] MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet,” Reed added.

US Naval Air Systems Command states that testing with Boeing’s MQ-25 test asset will continue over the next several months. During this, the platform will conduct flight envelope expansion, engine testing and deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier before the end of 2021.

Boeing’s MQ-25A design was selected by the US Navy in August 2018, with Boeing’s test asset gracing the skies for the first time on September 19, 2019. The naval air arm currently has seven examples of the unmanned tanker on order, but it intends to procure up to 72 in total to allow the service to fulfil its requirement for a dedicated carrier-based air-to-air refuelling platform.