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Boeing's Unmanned Tanker Completes Deck Testing on Carrier USS Bush

MQ-25
Image courtesy USN

Published Dec 20, 2021 10:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

Boeing's MQ-25 unmanned tanker has completed its first round of testing on the flight deck of the carrier USS George H.W. Bush, demonstrating its ability to operate aboard a moving vessel. 

“There is no better way to determine the success of a carrier aircraft design and its integration into the air wing then to put that new aircraft through testing at sea,” said Capt. Chad Reed, Unmanned Carrier Aviation program manager. “I am extremely proud of our team for the stellar execution of both engine and aircraft tests."

Before leaving the dock, contractor Lockheed Martin installed a prototype ground control station aboard the carrier, refining its layout and getting feedback from operators on the user interface. Once under way, Boeing's MQ-25 prototype - known as T1 - completed deck handling tests for day and night operations.  The trials included taxiing and parking on the flight deck, connecting to the launch catapult and clearing the landing area. The development team collected data on deck motion and wind over deck impacts on the plane's controllability and its powerplant. 

Specially-trained operators handled the MQ-25 on deck using wrist-mounted computer hardware. Boeing says that it has designed the wearable controllers with young video-game enthusiasts in mind, making it easier to train and use for enlisted sailors, according to FlightGlobal. For the purposes of the test, the carrier's own crew of "yellow shirt" taxi directors provided instructions on where to go. 

The test team also flew landing approaches using a surrogate aircraft, a King Air turboprop, simulating the MQ-25's hardware and software during a mission-critical part of each flight. The team will incorporate its findings into the plane's control software, according to Reed.

“Early testing allowed our team the opportunity to evaluate many new systems for the first time at sea with T1,” said Reed. “Our initial look at taxi operations on the flight deck successfully demonstrated the MQ-25’s ability to maneuver just like a manned aircraft in the shipboard environment.”
 
Once ready and deployable, the MQ-25 will be the world’s largest carrier-based unmanned aircraft, operating in a size and capability class of its own. It will provide in-flight refueling services for the carrier air wing's manned fighters, extending their range. 

T1 has already completed multiple ground-launched flight tests, including air-to-air refueling evolutions with several classes of manned aircraft, including F-35 and F/A-18 fighters. 

“The Navy gave us two key performance parameters for the program – aerial refuelling and integration onto the carrier deck,” said Dave Bujold, MQ-25 program director at Boeing. "We’ve shown that the MQ-25 can meet both requirements, and we’ve done it years earlier than traditional acquisition programs."

If all goes well, the Navy hopes to have MQ-25 in front-line service by 2024, and it wants to order dozens of the aircraft to fulfill the tanking role for its fleet.