Boeing last week accomplished what might be a first, the successful aerial refueling of a human piloted aircraft—a Navy F/A-18—from its MQ-25 drone prototype. The video is short and totally drama free, which is the way everyone involved wanted it to be.
The initial operational usage might very well be at sea. A carrier-based MQ-25 drone could refuel an F/A-18 (or other platform) without that fighter returning to the carrier to refuel, which is, as you’ve probably seen, an intense undertaking that takes time. The other option, refueling from a tanker, is fine, but because the tanker can’t be carrier-based, there’s the need to rendezvous somewhere else, which sometimes makes great logistical sense but not always. It also gives the F/A-18s greater range and/or payload, since they don’t have to tanker fuel.
While the June 4, 2021, refueling was the first of its kind, the opposite arrangement, a crewed plane refueling a drone, has been done. And, yes, we also assume at some point it will be drones refueling drones.
In addition to showing the promise of the technology, the test mission also allowed Boeing to gather data on wake interactions, an important factor in refueling operations. Test engineers will continue to fly refueling flights in order to expand the envelope and gather data, and carrier testing could happen as soon as later this year.