Boeing’s MQ-25 T1 becomes the first drone to refuel aircraft mid-air

The Boeing MQ-25 T1 test asset transfers fuel to a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet on June 4, marking the first time in history that an unmanned aircraft has refueled another aircraft. The MQ-25 Stingray will assume the carrier-based tanking role currently performed by F/A-18s, allowing for better use of the combat strike fighters and helping extend the range of the carrier air wing. (Boeing)

Boeing said Monday its MQ-25 has become the first unmanned aircraft to refuel another aircraft midair.

The Boeing-owned T1 prototype for the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray demonstrated its ability to carry out its aerial refueling mission for the U.S. Navy on a test flight Friday, Boeing said in a statement Monday.

The unmanned aircraft extended a hose and drogue from its U.S. Navy-issued aerial refueling store to transfer jet fuel to a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet during the test flight, according to the statement.

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

“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,” Corey said.

The feat was accomplished after an F/A-18 test pilot flew in close formation behind the MQ-25 during the initial part of the flight to ensure stability for refueling — with as little as 20 feet of separation between the unmanned aircraft and the fighter jet’s refueling probe — according to the statement.

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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 refueling capability to the fleet as soon as possible,” Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security in the statement.

The milestone comes after 25 T1 test flights using digital models, according to Boeing’s statement, with the T1 completing its first two-hour test flight in 2019.

It will continue flight testing before being shipped to Norfolk, Va., for deck handling trials aboard a U.S. Navy carrier later this year.

The Boeing-owned T1 prototype is a predecessor to the seven test aircraft Boeing is manufacturing under a 2018 contract award, Boeing added.

The MQ-25 will extend range of the combat strike fighters by assuming the tanking role that F/A-18s currently perform.

Boeing first unveiled its unmanned aerial tanker designed to refuel U.S. Navy jets in December 2017.

By August 2018, Boeing had received a contract to start developing the unmanned tanker drones.

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