Boeing [BA] and the Navy completed the first test flight of the company’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial refueler test asset on Aug. 19.
The Boeing test asset, named T-1, conducted an autonomous two-hour flight under Boeing test pilots operating from a ground control station at the MidAmerican St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Ill. The T-1 completed an autonomous taxi and takeoff, then flew a pre-determined route to validate its basic flight functions and operations with the ground control station.
Boeing and the Navy are conducting tests with the T-1 for early learning and discovery while the company works on the engineering and manufacturing development model (EMD) MQ-25 aircraft.
The company plans to use T-1 for 18 months while it works on the EMD models. In April, the company said testing on T-1 will allow it and the Navy to start work now rather than wait for the first EMD aircraft, saving 18 months of early learning (Defense Daily, April 29)
Boeing boasts that once the EMD aircraft is finished, the company can just plug in the latest lessons and software from T-1.
The company is also building the four EMD aircraft under an $805 million contract awarded last year (Defense Daily, Aug. 30, 2018).
The Navy plans to use the aircraft primarily for Navy aerial refueling based on aircraft carriers, freeing up F/A-18s currently used in a tanking role. The MQ-25 may extend a carrier’s air wing by 300-400 more miles while it has a secondary planned use with limited intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
Dave Bujold, Boeing’s MQ-25 program director, told reporters on Friday in a press call the T-1 was working on a pre-scripted flight plan with waypoints. The air vehicle operator authorizes each test point in the aircraft’s planned test cards, covering factors like pitch and roll, stability, speed control, and throttle control.
Bujold said the test was a success with no issues and good data collection on the ground.
“We’re obviously going to continue to evaluate all that data with a fine-toothed comb. But no card repeats, no standbys, no holds, no knock it offs. This was a very, very clean up and away test card pace.”
“My objective in the program for first flight was to have a, what we call for testers, a boring flight, and the testers were perfectly happy to oblige and the aircraft performed exceptionally well,” Bujold continued.
Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for Unmanned Carrier Aviation (PMA-268), saw the test in person and agreed it was successful.
“With the completion of the test flight with Boeing’s T-1 aircraft, it’s the first of what we anticipate will be many early learning opportunities, helping us progress toward delivering a critical capability to the carrier air wing,” Reed said.
Reed noted the MQ-25 is a maritime accelerated acquisition program and is tasked with delivering the capability as soon as possible. He said this was “a big step towards that.”
Reed confirmed the Navy is still targeting Initial Operational Capability for 2024, five years after the service awarded the EMD contract to Boeing.
The first EMD aircraft is expected to be ready by fiscal year 2021 so “conducting tests with T-1 two years before the first MQ-25 test aircraft arrives, this lays the foundation for us to move quickly into develop and test of the four EDM aircraft, enabling early learning and discovery in our systems and software”
The Navy plans to keep testing with the T-1 as long as it continues to be useful while the EMDs are being built.
The T-1 does not have the refueling capability, but the Navy and Boeing will essentially use it to test how the airframe operates in choppier weather conditions, various altitudes and airspeeds, and holding some refueling store equipment.
Reed said future T-1 testing should include flight envelope expansion, engine testing, aerial refueling store operations, joint precision approach landing systems functionality testing, and eventually a hoist aboard a carrier to test deck handling control station systems.
He said testing of T-1 on a carrier will focus on driving it around the flight deck and connecting it to control systems.
The first EMD aircraft are expected to be ready by 2021, with the first delivered to the Navy’s Patuxent River, Md., facility before conducting testing onboard a carrier.
Reed said the Navy plans to conduct the majority of EMD testing at its Patuxent River, Md., facility, with excursions to the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Lakehurst to fully test aircraft carrier launch and arresting gear systems.
In 2022-2023 the Navy plans for EMD MQ-25s to conduct carrier-based tests during sea trials, targeting 2024 for declaring initial operational capability.
The Navy has plans to conduct MQ-25 EMD tests on aircraft carriers on both coasts, with options to work on it at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif.
Bujold said the company has no plans to transfer T-1 to the Navy, just use it to determine aeronautical engineering issues relevant to the EMD design. Once T-1 is exceeded by the EMD, the company will make a decision on what to do with the aircraft.
Reed said one key difference between T-1 and the EMD is the carrier refueling store, although the program has steps in that direction and plans to eventually have T-1 tests using a refueling store under the wings.
Boeing said the T1 received its experimental airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration in September. This verifies it meets the agency’s requirements for safe flight.
Boeing previously built T-1 before the contract was awarded and showed it off as a prototype during the competition last year. It was originally built in 2012-2013 as part of the Navy’s preceding Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program (Defense Daily, April 6, 2018).
The Navy intends for the MQ-25 program to eventually deliver a total of 72 aircraft after the initial four EMD aircraft and plans for an Initial Operating Capability by 2024 (Defense Daily, Aug. 31, 2018)
In April, the company moved T-1 from Boeing’s St. Louis, Mo., factory to the MidAmerica Airport, adjacent to the Scott Air Force Base, partially because MidAmerica was a quieter environment.
In June, Boeing awarded BAE Systems a contract to provide the Identification Friend or Foe and Vehicle Control Management Systems for the MQ-25 (Defense Daily, June 17).