In a first, drone refuels U.S. Navy fighter jet in midair

An aircraft called the MQ-25 Stingray rolled down the strip at MidAmerica Airport on the outskirts of St. Louis on June 4 before lifting into the sky. It was quickly followed by a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighter.

They met at about 10,000 feet. The Navy test pilots in the Super Hornet wanted to ensure there were no problems with the Stingray before they got too close.

After all, the Stingray is a drone and its “pilot” was still on the ground.

After an initial dry test run, the Super Hornet extended a fuel probe and inched closer to the Stingray until both aircraft made contact. About 300 pounds of fuel were transferred from one to the other.

“This historic flight was the first time any aircraft received fuel from an unmanned aerial vehicle,” Navy Capt. Chad Reed told reporters on Monday. 

Navy officials say the uncrewed MQ-25 Stingray, currently being tested by Boeing, will eventually take over the aerial refueling mission for aircraft carriers, potentially expanding the scope and versatility of some of the country’s most sophisticated fighters. 

“It’s going to provide a critical air refueling capability that extends the range, operational capability and lethality of the carrier air wing and the carrier strike group,” said Capt. Reed, who oversees the Navy’s Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons office.

Following the initial fuel transfer, the Stingray continued climbing. At 15,000 feet, the ground operator signaled for the drone to spool out its fuel line. The Super Hornet again extended its probe and successfully connected, with about 25 pounds of fuel being transferred.

“Seeing the MQ-25 … fueling an F/A-18 is a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet,” said Capt. Reed.

Navy F-18 pilots are used to getting their fuel from modified Super Hornets, where they had to position themselves directly behind the jet fighter’s powerful twin engines to link up. It was a bit quieter on June 4 for the Navy pilots testing the Stingray.

“They actually could have a conversation in the cockpit,” said Dave Bujold, Boeing’s MQ-25 program manager. “It went extremely well. There was very favorable feedback from our pilots.”

Navy officials said the MQ-25 will be the world’s first operational carrier-based uncrewed aircraft. Along with aerial refueling, they envision it to take on reconnaissance and surveillance missions. 

The next few months will be spent poring over the data from the June 4 flight along with further testing. Navy officials expect to load the Stingray onto an aircraft carrier by the end of the year to test how it maneuvers on a flight deck.

“Right now, we’re immediately going back into continuing the test flights we’ve been conducting,” Capt. Reed said. “We still have data we want to gather from both the engine and the aerodynamic performance” of the drone.

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