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December 19, 2002

Release: 02-68

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Engineers at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center are evaluating the capability of an F/A-18A aircraft as an in-flight refueling tanker to develop analytical models for an automated aerial refueling system for unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).

The Automated Aerial Refueling (AAR) project is documenting how an operational tanker's drogue basket responds when in the presence of the receiver aircraft. Currently little flight-obtained dynamics data exists. For this modeling study, a second F/A-18 is flying as the receiver aircraft.

The F/A-18A tanker aircraft is undergoing flight test envelope expansion with an aerodynamic pod containing air-refueling equipment carried beneath the fuselage. During the 1990s, the refueling pod was integrated on the newer F/A-18E/F. According to AAR project engineers, the objectives of the recent flights at NASA Dryden are to demonstrate the operational flight envelope and to assess the free-stream hose and drogue dynamics on the earlier model F/A-18s.

NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Naval Air Systems Command, the Naval Air Force – Pacific Fleet, the Canadian Air Force, and aerospace companies Boeing and Northrop Grumman are cooperating to develop a versatile model for the refueling of UAV aircraft.

"I am very proud of the team's accomplishments," said Gerard Schkolnik, NASA Dryden's AAR project manager. "(We flew the) first flight 10 weeks after project start, and the first operational in-flight aerial refueling from an F/A-18A tanker.

"If it weren't for the outstanding support of our partners, we wouldn't have made it happen. This marks the beginning of a new chapter for UAVs as we start the process of making automated aerial refueling a reality," Schkolnik added.

The Automated Aerial Refueling project builds on the Autonomous Formation Flight (AFF) project flown at NASA Dryden in 2000 - 2001. Flight research during AFF demonstrated that a 14-percent fuel saving could be achieved by the trailing F/A-18 flying in a precision station-keeping formation within the wingtip vortices of the lead aircraft. Many resources and personnel from AFF are involved in the refueling project, allowing the AAR research effort to progress quickly.


Note to Editors: For further information about the project or availability of video footage, contact Beth Hagenauer, (661) 276-7960 or (661) 276-3449. Photos are available online at: /centers/dfrc/Gallery/Photo/AAR/index.html

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