Fighter refueling missions have until now involved huge cargo aircraft such as the Airbus A400M or the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender, but in every case in aviation history those aircraft have been manned.
Now Boeing has announced that it has developed the MQ-25 T1 drone, an autonomous aircraft that has successfully refueled an F/A-18 fighter, something that for the U.S. Air Force is quite an accomplishment.
Until now we had been able to see drones in military operations of surveillance and even attack always with human controllers behind, but this is the first time that a drone is used so that other combat aircraft can refuel.
In this test flight the F/A-18 stayed in formation with the MQ-25 for a few minutes to evaluate the refueling operation, which is performed just 6 or 7 meters away and at altitudes and speeds that Boeing described as “relevant” without giving further details.
“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts.” #MQ25 is the first unmanned aircraft to ever refuel another aircraft.
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) June 7, 2021
This first refueling has been achieved after several previous test flights of the MQ-25, and the goal is now to apply this capability first on an aircraft carrier to further develop this project.
U.S. Navy officials indicated that the MQ-25s will greatly increase the range and autonomy of its air combat missions.
That will allow to replace the F/A-18s that in fact served to allow the refueling of other fighter jets, something really curious and that was in a way a waste of the F/A-18’s operational capability.