A V-22 Osprey, equipped with a prototype aerial refueling system under development by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing, deploys, stabilizes and retracts the refueling drogue as an F/A-18 Hornet flies just behind and to the side of the aircraft during an initial test of the system over Texas in August. (Bell Boeing V-22 Program)
The medium-lift MV-22 Osprey, proven in combat as a troop and equipment transport, could soon get a new mission — refueling other aircraft.
A series of tests in August and September has given aviation officials hope that the Osprey could be used to extend the range of other platforms, including helicopters and the F35-B Joint Strike fighter.
The first tests of the aerial refueling system under development by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing determined how turbulence from the Osprey’s rotors affect the hose and drogue that deliver fuel to other aircraft, as well as how rotary-wing and jet aircraft react in the Osprey’s rotor wash.
“The indications are that it’s really a steady drogue back there,” said Brig. Gen. Matthew Glavy, assistant deputy commandant for aviation, at the Pentagon. “The Hornet pilots were really impressed with what they saw.”
A high-speed test for jet aircraft was conducted Aug. 29 and a second, low-speed rotary-wing test Sept. 23. Each type of aircraft requires a slightly different drogue, although it can be changed on the ground to meet the day’s mission.
During the Aug. 29 test, two F-18 Hornets from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., flew to Fort Worth, Texas, where the Bell Boeing team conducted proof of concept testing. No refueling occurred, but a water-filled hose was used to determine if a hose could indeed be extended and retracted safely from an Osprey.
“If this thing is bouncing around, there is really no reason to go further,” Glavy said. “But what we saw in this demonstration is it doesn’t. It’s a steady target.”
The second test, with rotary-wing aircraft, also didn’t involve the exchange of fuel. It proved that the drogue is steady when the Osprey has its nacelles — the engine enclosures — at a 60-degree angle, rather than in the horizontal airplane mode, according to Chad Sparks, the V-22 advanced derivatives manager for the Bell Boeing V-22 Program.
The development is important, Glavy said, because it will significantly enhance the capability of other aircraft.
The Osprey could carry as much as 10,000 to 12,000 extra pounds of fuel in up to three auxiliary fuel tanks that are already in use and standard for the Osprey, Sparks said.
Because most of the refueling technology already exists, such as the modified KC-130 hose and drogue, or is native to the Osprey platform, like the auxiliary fuel tanks, the MV-22 could be outfitted on short notice for a range of missions, depending on the day’s needs.
“One day it could just carry troops or cargo. The next day it may be needed to operate as a tanker,” Sparks said.
Ground crews would simply roll auxiliary fuel tanks into the cabin, bolt them down and the Osprey would be ready to go.
The next step, now that the concept is proven, is to have a discussion with the military on what specific fuel capacities and fueling rates they desire. Also to be determined is what level of integration with other aircraft systems does the Marine Corps want, Sparks said.
It would be easy to have an operator at the tail of the aircraft — a crew chief, for example — conducting the refueling with existing technology. But the refueling controls could also be incorporated into the cockpit if the Marine Corps prefers that option, Sparks said.