Boeing to test refuelling drone

© Boeing | Boeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system

Boeing will demonstrate an unmanned aircraft capable of refuelling carrier-based US Navy jets, according to an announcement from the company.

The US Navy has been running a competition for development of an unmanned aircraft capable of refuelling its FA18 Super Hornets, EA18G Growler and F35D fighters. The winning drone will need to integrate seamlessly with a carrier’s catapult and launch and recovery system.

Boeing says that the drone is completing engine runs before deck handling demonstrations early next year.

Retired Admiral Don Gaddis, who leads the refuelling-system program for Boeing’s Phantom Works technology organisation, said ‘Our expertise gives us confidence in our approach. We will be ready for flight testing when the engineering and manufacturing development contract is awarded.’

There are currently two incompatible aerial refuelling systems in use around the world—the widely-used ‘probe-and-drogue’ system, and the flying boom, the latter requiring a dedicated operator on the tanker aircraft. Both systems use a manned tanker aircraft.

The first practical aerial refuelling system, known as grappled line looped-hose, was developed in the 1930s and was used for civil aircraft until the outbreak of World War II. In 1949, an American B-50 Superfortress bomber flew non-stop around the world in 94 hours, with four aerial refuellings.

The first use of aerial refuelling in combat was during the Korean War, when US fighters had to fly missions from Japan because many bases in South Korea had been overrun by Chinese and North Korean troops.