Boeing’s MQ-25A Stingray test asset marked yet another milestone on September 13, when the platform – registration N234MQ (known as T1) – completed its first aerial refuelling of a US Navy-operated Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter.
This successful flight took place from the MidAmerica St Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, and further demonstrated the Stingray’s ability to fulfil its future tanker mission using the US Navy’s standard probe-and-drogue air-to-air (A2A) refuelling method. During the three-hour test flight, the company-owned MQ-25 test asset successfully transferred fuel from its Cobham-made Aerial Refueling Store (ARS) to an F-35C receiver aircraft from the US Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) ‘Salty Dogs’ at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland.
US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) states that – during the sortie – the Navy F-35C pilot performed formation evaluations; wake surveys; drogue tracking and plugged with the MQ-25 test asset at 225kts and an altitude of 10,000ft. “From the ground control station, an air vehicle operator then initiated the fuel transfer from T1’s [ARS] to the F-35C,” it added.
The F-35C is now the third manned aircraft type to be refuelled in-flight by the MQ-25A test asset under the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation (PMA-268) programme. This milestone comes after the Stingray successfully refuelled a US Navy-operated Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet on June 4, 2021, and a Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye on August 18.
Capt Chad Reed, the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program manager, said: “Every T1 flight with another type/model/series aircraft gets us one step closer to rapidly delivering a fully mission-capable MQ-25 to the fleet. Stingray’s unmatched refuelling capability is going to increase the Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the carrier strike group commanders.”
Reed explained that due to the aerodynamic differences between each of the receiver aircraft, the way they respond in the wake of a tanker platform is different. By flying different types behind the test asset, it allows those working on the programme to assess how the manned platforms will interact with the unmanned MQ-25.
Following this flight, the Stingray test asset will enter a modification phase, where it will be integrated with a deck handling system in preparation for a shipboard demonstration, which is scheduled to take place this winter. In total, T1 has completed 36 test flights to date. During which, it has provided valuable information on aerodynamics, propulsion, guidance and control before the first engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) examples of the MQ-25 are delivered to the US Navy.
Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray design was selected by the US Navy in August 2018, with the company’s test asset gracing the skies for the first time on September 19, 2019. The US Navy currently has seven examples of the unmanned tanker on order, but it intends to procure up to 72 in total, allowing the service to fulfil its requirement for a dedicated carrier-based A2A refuelling platform.
NAVAIR adds: “Along with organic tanking, the MQ-25 will pave the way for manned and unmanned teaming (MUM-T) of carrier-based aircraft that will extend the strike range and enhance manoeuvrability. As unmanned tanking capacity increases, the manned tanker requirement decreases, promoting additional service life and capacity for manned strike-fighter missions.”