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V-22 Osprey angles toward aerial tanker jobs

Some days, an aircraft wants to be more than just a troop transport. The Bell Boeing V-22 program is now trying out the tilt-rotor Osprey to see how it might fare as a flying gas station.

V-22 Osprey
A V-22 Osprey tries its hand at serving as an aerial refueling tanker. The plane moseying up as if for a fill-up is an F/A-18 Hornet. Bell Boeing photo

You can't fill up your fighter jet from a V-22 Osprey just yet, but that may change.

The military-industrial tag team of Boeing and Bell Helicopter Textron said Thursday that an Osprey in their charge, kitted out with a prototype aerial refueling system, has completed an initial test to show its potential as a flying gas station.

In the skies over north Texas sometime last month, the test-savvy V-22 teased a pair of F/A-18 Hornets (one a C model, the other a D) by unspooling a hose with a refueling drogue and then retracting it after proving that the drogue could hold stable. Or perhaps it was the Hornets that were playing coy -- they were flying just behind and to the side of the Osprey.

It'll be in upcoming test flights for the Bell Boeing V-22 program that an aircraft will actually get into the fuel-receiving position directly behind the V-22, not to mention eventually hooking up to the refueling drogue.

Boeing knows a thing or two about aerial refueling tankers, having long kept the US Air Force outfitted with KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders. It also won the Pentagon's multibillion-dollar contract to deliver the next-generation KC-46A tanker, the first two of which are now in the initial stages of assembly.

The V-22 Osprey, equipped with tiltrotor engines that let it fly like either a helicopter or a fixed-wing aircraft, serves in a number of roles already, including troop transport, search and rescue, and medevac. (Another multirole aircraft, the Lockheed C-130, also counts aerial tanker among its skills.) Adding the aerial refueling capability would be another, well, feather in the Osprey's cap.

It'd also be another way to signal the Pentagon's bookkeepers that, hey, this aircraft is a keeper.