Boeing’s Stingray Performs First Unmanned Refueling

 - June 7, 2021, 12:36 PM
A U.S. Navy Super Hornet successfully takes on fuel from Boeing’s MQ-25 T1 test article, representing a major achievement on the path to fielding an operational unmanned tanker. (Photo: Boeing)

On June 4 the Boeing/U.S. Navy team that is developing the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned carrier-borne tanker passed a major milestone when the first test air vehicle passed fuel to a manned receiver in flight. A Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet from Naval Air Systems Command’s Strike Test Directorate (VX-23) was the receiving aircraft, and it conducted a formation evaluation prior to engaging with the Aerial Refueling Store (ARS) carried by the MQ-25. Fuel was transferred at an operationally relevant airspeed and altitude.

“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” said rear admiral Brian Corey, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing—equipping our aircraft carriers with additional assets well into the future.”

“This is our mission, an unmanned aircraft that frees our strike fighters from the tanker role, and provides the Carrier Air Wing with greater range, flexibility, and capability,” added captain Chad Reed, manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office (PMA-268). “Seeing the MQ-25 fulfilling its primary tasking today—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.”

Boeing used its company-owned MQ-25 test article, known as T1, which flew from its test site at MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois. T1 has been flying since September 2019 and has undertaken 25 sorties, including several with the ARS attached. Important data was gathered during the flight in the areas of airwake interaction, and guidance and control. Based on the analysis of the data, software changes can be incorporated at an early stage of testing if they are required.

In the coming months, T1 will continue to undergo engine test and envelope expansion flight trials, validating the results of many hours of simulations. Later in the year, the air vehicle will be transported to Norfolk, Virginia, from where it will be craned aboard an aircraft carrier for deck handling trials.

T1 was built at Boeing’s expense, but the company has seven further Stingrays under contract for Navy trials. Four Engineering Development Model (EDM) aircraft were ordered as part of the original contract in August 2018, and three System Demonstration Test Articles (SDTAs) were added in a contract modification in April 2020. Current planning envisages the Navy receiving 72 MQ-25As, with service entry slated for 2024.