After participating in aviation history, MidAmerica Airport’s director says there’s hopefully more to come.
On June 4, a St. Louis-built “tanker” drone became the first unmanned craft to refuel a manned plane while in flight. Officials with Boeing and the U.S. Navy said a prototype Boeing MQ-25 Stingray took off from MidAmerica Airport and successfully completed the mission by linking up with a U.S. Navy Super Hornet.
According to Boeing, the mission marked the first successful air-to-air refueling using an unmanned aircraft. The company said more challenging tests at varying speeds, altitudes and locations are ahead, as well as some tests involving aircraft carriers.
“Over the next few years, we will work side-by-side with Boeing to deliver this capability that will greatly enhance the future carrier air wing,” said Rear Adm. Brian Corey, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, in a statement.
Airport Director Bryan Johnson is hoping for more tests at MidAmerica after the drone mission, adding that the historic event is an example of the airport’s value to the region.
“It’s significant in so many ways, not just from the point of view of aviation history but also for the utility and value of this airport,” Johnson said. “That is really what’s significant. The overall value this airport brings to this metro area, to southern Illinois and parts of Missouri. It’s an example of this airport’s value over time — and we’re still a young airport.”
Missions like this at MidAmerica are key to bringing in more business and jobs to the region through partnerships with companies like Boeing, which has several defense-related operations at the airport and is in the “early stages” of a possible expansion project there. Officials have released few specific details about the project.
Kurt LaBelle, a representative with Boeing, earlier this year said no final decisions have been made about the possible expansion, but the current pre-development agreement will “aid in the decision-making process.” Earlier this year, Johnson said the project would be in a “due diligence” process for the remainder of 2021.
The airport is home to a Boeing manufacturing facility where production and flight test activities take place across a range of defense-related programs. A large number of test flights have occurred at the airport over the past several years.
The possible new development is planned for the south end of the airport and could have a “substantial” financial impact for the region and St. Clair County, Johnson said in January.
“The economic value that these things bring to our community can’t be overlooked because of how important jobs are in the community,” Johnson said.
And with more missions and more challenging tests ahead, Johnson said the hope is many will continue to take place at MidAmerica.
When asked about the possibility of future projects in drone development or construction or testing at MidAmerica, Johnson said its something he’s “optimistic” about but said it can be competitive to bring those types of developments to the airport.
“We’re not the only airport that can support these types of aircraft but certainly you would think one development would lead to another,” Johnson said. “So we’re pretty optimistic that more aviation developments will take place here. “
He noted that the airport’s 20,000-foot runway was a major deciding factor for Boeing when it sought a location to execute the June 4 test.
Along with Boeing’s possible new project, MidAmerica is also expected to complete the expansion of its terminal by more than 41,000 square feet in December 2022, a year early thanks to a recent $9.7 million federal grant awarded to the airport.
The drone refueling mission
During the June 4 drone flight, a F/A-18 test pilot flew closely in formation behind the MQ-25 to ensure stability and performance, according to a press release from Boeing. The maneuver required less than 20 feet of separation between the two aircraft.
While both aircraft were midair at the same speed and altitude, the MQ-25 extended a hose and drogue from its fuel store and transferred jet fuel to the F/A-18.
The feat was completed after 25 test flights and “extensive” simulations of the refueling. More tests will take place aboard a U.S. Navy carrier in Norfolk, Virginia later this year.
“This history-making event is a credit to our joint Boeing and Navy team that is all-in on delivering MQ-25’s critical aerial refueling capability to the fleet as soon as possible,” said Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, in a statement. “Their work is the driving force behind the safe and secure integration of unmanned systems in the immediate future of defense operations.”
Boeing officials said the new development will allow for combat strike fighters in the military to extend their flight range.