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Navy fighter refuels from unmanned drone for first time

Watch: Boeing drone refuels Navy jet for first time ever

The Navy hopes to have unmanned drones stationed aboard aircraft carriers for mid-air refueling operations by 2025.

Boeing and the U.S. Navy have completed what they say is the first-ever mid-air refueling mission between a fighter jet and an unmanned drone tanker. It’s a big step to the ultimate goal of having refueling tankers stationed aboard aircraft carriers.

The test conducted last Friday, originated from MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, the Navy said. 

An F/A-18 Super Hornet rendezvoused with a Boeing MQ-25 T1 Stingray test tanker. Boeing said the first part of the test involved the Super Hornet flying in close formation — as close as 20 feet — to ensure performance and stability. After that, the Stingray’s drogue was deployed and the Super Hornet plugged in for the fuel transfer.

“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,” Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office, said in a statement.

Data from the flight and refueling will be analyzed to determine if any adjustments are needed. More test flights will be conducted before the plane heads to Norfolk, Va., for deck handling trials aboard an aircraft carrier later this year.

Defense News reports the program won’t be fully operational until 2025. F/A-18s currently handle the role of mid-air refueling, so the MQ-25 will free those up for other operations.

“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,” said Rear Adm. Brian Corey who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons.

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