MQ-25 Stingray Becomes First Ever Unmanned Aircraft To Refuel Manned Aircraft

The US Navy and Boeing announced today that Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray successfully conducted its first aerial refueling on June 4. The successful refueling of a US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet demonstrated the Stingray’s ability to refuel aircraft using the probe-and-drogue aerial refueling system, becoming the first ever unmanned aircraft to refuel a manned aircraft.

The Boeing-owned MQ-25 T1 test asset flew from MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois for the test. After entering close formation with the MQ-25, the Super Hornet performed a formation evaluation, wake survey and drogue tracking before “plugging” with the unmanned aircraft. After the establishment of a connection, the MQ-25 successfully transferred fuel from its Aerial Refueling Store (ARS) to the Super Hornet.

“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.”

Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office, described the successful refueling as a “significant and exciting moment” for the Navy, showing the progress the MQ-25 program has made towards the program goals of extending the reach, flexibility and capability of the carrier air wing and freeing up the Super Hornets currently used as tankers. Reed added that the test provided valuable early data on airwake interactions, as well as guidance and control. This data will be analyzed by the program team to see if any adjustments are required, allowing for any necessary software updates to be performed early on, with no effects on the program test schedule.

Boeing publicity video showing the refueling during the flight test.

“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.”

T1’s first aerial refueling comes after 25 flight tests since September 2019 of the performance of the airframe and its ARS, in addition to “extensive” digital simulations of its aerial refueling performance. T1 will continue to undergo a series of tests that will include expansion of its flight envelope and engine testing, ahead of being shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, for its first deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier later this year.