Transferring a highly combustible liquid between two aircraft in midair is a procedure that until now required two skilled pilots, but the US Navy has managed to replace one of them with a drone.
Yesterday, the first midair refueling of a US fighter jet was carried out by an unmanned tanker. The MQ-25 Stingray used the Navy’s standard probe-and-drogue technique for refueling a F/A-18 Super Hornet as part of a test flight. The data from the procedure will now be analyzed to assess the airwake interactions, guidance, and control performance before software updates are made to the Stingray’s system.
“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” said Rear Adm. 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.”
The Navy intends for the Stingray to become the world’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft, but a lot more testing is required before it can be deployed. Over the next several months those tests will include “flight envelope expansion, engine testing, and deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier.” Once deployed, it will also carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) duties alongside refueling any fighter jets flying on fumes.