US Navy completes historic chopper-to-drone fuel transfusion

The United States Marines have successfully completed the service's "first ever" fuel transfer between a regular chopper and an unmanned MQ-8C "Fire Scout."
Christopher McFadden
Image of the historical moment.


The United States Navy has announced that, for the first time, it has transferred fuel from a conventional piloted helicopter to an unmanned autonomous helicopter. The fuel donation occurred on the ground with a CH-53E "Super Stallion" transferring fuel to a Navy MQ-8C "Fire Scout." This is a historic moment for the Navy, conducted at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, on the 31st of July, 2023.

History in the making

"Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, led the aerial delivered ground refueling (ADGR) trial with the MQ-8C Fire Scout from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21 during Service Level Training Exercise (SLTE) 5-23," the US Navy reported. The "Super Stallion" reportedly transferred about 700 pounds (318 kg) of fuel to the recipient drone chopper just under the uncrewed aircraft's maximum payload.

The MQ-8C is a highly advanced unmanned aerial vehicle designed to operate from a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). This cutting-edge technology is specifically designed to support data collection and assessment in littoral (near-shore) waters, providing invaluable insights and information to those who rely on it. With its advanced capabilities and impressive performance, the MQ-8C is a game-changer in unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Coming to Twentynine Palms was an opportunity to showcase that the MQ-8C can be a valuable platform in support of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force,” said Lieutenant Commander Brian “Freq” Paskey, the HSC-21 training officer. “By conducting ADGR in addition to using a mobile control station, the MQ-8C can be operated to support Marines in nearly any environment," he added.

The "Super Stallion's" maximum fuel payload of 23,450 pounds (10.637 kg) allows it to refuel the "Fire Scout" multiple times, enabling the drone to operate over longer distances and periods of time in hard-to-reach areas. “We are in the desert, but the logistical, administrative, and most importantly the tactical lessons learned here are applicable to any clime and place,” Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Griggs, the top acquisitions, construction, and improvements officer at Twentynine Palms, California explained.

In recent years, the Marine Corps has emphasized reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance, and the use of unmanned aircraft due to potential threats from the technologically advanced Chinese military. Leaders also recognize the need to update the vulnerable logistics system to accommodate the more spread-out form of combat they are preparing for.

First of many

"This is the first instance of MQ-8C in Twentynine Palms, but I think we'll be seeing more of them,” said Griggs. "This iteration of [Service Level Training Exercise] ends in August, but lessons captured from this trial were captured by the Navy and Marine Corps," explained the US Navy in the press release.

“For the MQ-8C, the U.S. is exploring the tactical application of an asset with expanding capabilities - they need to know what is working, and what they need to work on,” Griggs said. “We are in the desert, but the logistical, administrative, and most importantly the tactical lessons learned here are applicable to any clime and place," he added.

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