US Navy Refuels Manned Fighter Mid-Flight with Tanker Drone in a World First

A Boeing MQ-25 drone and F/A-18 just docked to refuel mid-air.
Christopher McFadden

The United States Navy and Boeing just made history with the world's first mid-air refueling of a manned aircraft with a drone. Using Boeing's MQ-25 T1 drone, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Superhornet managed to dock with the drone at speed and transfer fuel to the plane's fuel tanks. 

For reference, the Boeing-owned T1 test drone is a predecessor to the seven test aircraft Boeing is manufacturing under a 2018 contract award. It is hoped that the MQ-25 will assume a tanking role to replace specialist "tanker" F/A-18 Super Hornets to extend their range and free them up for more combat missions. 

The test flight was conducted on the 4th of June, with Boeing's MQ-25 successfully matching speed with the fighter and deploying its refueling hose and drogue from its Navy-issued refueling store (ARS). This test flight successfully demonstrated the MQ-25's ability to carry out its primary aerial refueling capabilities. 

Rear Admiral Brian Corey, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said, "this team of professionals was integral in the successful flight,"

"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," he added. 

You can watch the amazing footage for yourself in a recent video released by the Navy and Boeing. 

"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," said Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security. "Their work is the driving force behind the safe and secure integration of unmanned systems in the immediate future of defense operations."

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The drone and F/A-18 Super Hornet were very close during the operation

In order to make the mission a success, the F/A-18's pilot had to fly in close formation just behind the drone to ensure the stability of the connection during refueling. This maneuver required the plane to be a little as 20 feet (6.1 meters) away from the MQ-25 for several minutes. 

Both the fighter and the drone were flying at "operationally relevant" speeds and altitudes, meaning the test flight was a close to real combat conditions as possible. Once the safety and stability of the drone refueling platform (and fighter) had been evaluated and deemed safe, the refueling operation was commenced with the hose and drogue being deployed remotely. 

Once fully deployed, the pilot advanced on the drone and docked its refueling boom and nozzle into the drone's drogue with ease. 

This incredible feat is the 26th test flight of the drone that has put it through its paces in a variety of scenarios. This has included assessments of both aircraft and ARS aerodynamics across the flight envelope, as well as, in-depth simulations of aerial refueling using digital models. 

Going forward, Boeing (and the U.S. Navy) will continue to test the MQ-25 T1 before being officially signed off for transfer to Norfolk, Virginia for deck handling trials on a U.S. aircraft carrier. 

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