In 1997, the Harrison Ford action film “Air Force One” was the 5th highest grossing film of the year earning $315 million worldwide. The film is about a president trying to rescue all of the members on board Air Force One after it has been taken over by a team of terrorists. A pivotal scene in the movie is when a planned aerial refueling mission takes place to allow the terrorists to reach their final destination. Unbeknownst to the bad guys, the president, and his team use this moment to free the hostages strapped into parachutes as the plane lowers to refueling altitude. Spoiler alert, the mission doesn’t go as planned.
The tanker jet, in this case, a KC-10, has to break away causing fuel to spray out of the fuel probe. Sparks ignite, travel up the boom, and the KC-10 explodes. Though this satisfied the dramatic theme of the movie, it is not what would have happened if an emergency happened during a true aerial refueling mission. Onboard the refueling jet would be a designated boom operator. The boom is the telescope like hose that connects the two aircraft to transfer the fuel. The operator has total control of the boom and the fuel being pumped into the receiving plane. If an emergency were to happen, the operator would have no problem immediately shutting off the fuel supply, disconnecting, and retracting the boom.
But what if there is no boom operator, or even a pilot onboard a refueling jet? This is one of the questions Boeing had to address when developing a drone that could be used to refuel inflight aircraft, as per an objective of the United States Navy. Aiding Boeing in this mission was a team of 19 worldwide, cross-industry experts. On September 19, 2019, the drone was ready for its first test flight. After being certified for airworthiness by the Federal Aviation Administration, the MQ-25 autonomously took off from a runway at Scott Air Force Base in St. Louis, MO. “Seeing MQ-25 in the sky is a testament to our Boeing and Navy team working the technology, systems, and processes that are helping get MQ-25 to the carrier,” said Boeing MQ-25 Program Director Dave Bujold. “This aircraft and its flight test program ensures we’re delivering the MQ-25 to the carrier fleet with the safety, reliability, and capability the U.S. Navy needs to conduct its vital mission.”