The U.S. Navy and Boeing have completed its first aerial refueling of an F-35C Lightning II aircraft from an MQ-25 unmanned aerial vehicle.
The MQ-25 is a Boeing-owned test asset, known as T1, and is part of the Navy’s broader initiative to field unmanned systems that transform and enhance the fleet’s capability, capacity and lethality.
This was the third refueling mission for the Boeing-owned test asset in just over three months, advancing the test program for the Navy’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft. In June, T1 refueled an F/A-18 Super Hornet, and in August, an E-2D Hawkeye.
The integrated Navy and Boeing MQ-25 team, in coordination with the F-35 program, conducted the refueling flight Sept. 13 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois.
“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,” said Capt. Chad Reed, the Navy’s PMA-268 program manager.
“Stingray’s unmatched refueling capability is going to increase the Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the carrier strike group commanders.”
During the three-hour flight, a Navy F-35C pilot from Air Test Wing and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) approached T1, performed formation evaluations, wake surveys, drogue tracking and plugged with the MQ-25 test asset at 225 knots calibrated airspeed and altitude of 10,000 feet. From the ground control station, an air vehicle operator then initiated the fuel transfer from T1’s aerial refueling store to the F-35C.
“This flight was yet another physical demonstration of the maturity and stability of the MQ-25 aircraft design,” said Dave Bujold, Boeing’s MQ-25 program director. “Thanks to this latest mission in our accelerated test program, we are confident the MQ-25 aircraft we are building right now will meet the Navy’s primary requirement – delivering fuel safely to the carrier air wing.”
Once operational, MQ-25 will refuel every receiver-capable carrier-based aircraft. Each unique aircraft platform will have a different aerodynamic interaction in the wake of MQ-25. Conducting refueling test missions with various aircraft allows the program to analyze data and determine if any adjustments to guidance and control are required.
Earlier this summer, the program completed unmanned refueling missions with an F/A-18 Super Hornet and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Each aircraft platform is aerodynamically unique so how they respond in the wake of a tanker is different. Flying different aircraft behind the MQ-25 lets us assess how they will interact, Reed said.
Following this flight, T1 will enter into a modification period to integrate the deck handling system in preparation for a shipboard demonstration this winter. To date, T1 has conducted 36 flights, providing the program with valuable information on aerodynamics, propulsion, guidance and control in advance of the MQ-25 engineering and manufacturing development aircraft deliveries.
The MQ-25 will be the first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft and will provide critical aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to support the Air Wing of the Future – a mix of fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, manned and unmanned platforms, and netted sensors and weapons.
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 maneuverability. As unmanned tanking capacity increases, the manned tanker requirement decreases, promoting additional service life and capacity available for manned strike-fighter missions.