When that’s done, the plane will undergo modifications including the installation of the aerial refueling system and new electronics. When that’s done, the plane will start flying again.
The Boeing test aircraft will eventually undergo testing on the East Coast, where the Navy will hoist it onto an aircraft carrier for deck handling testing.
“By the time the Navy’s assets are jumping in the air, we will already have had thousands of test hours on the ground and hundreds in the air,” Bujold said.
The first Navy aircraft is scheduled to fly in fiscal 2021.
“We’re on pace [to meet that schedule],” Bujold said. “In the meantime, we’ll fly this [prototype] and learn a lot early.”
The project is moving quickly, particularly by Pentagon standards, for several reasons. First, Boeing had already designed and built a prototype of the autonomous drone. So when the Navy ordered four MQ-25s in September, the company was able to start preparing the prototype for flight.
Another reason the project is moving quickly: a team of Navy officials is based inside of Boeing’s St. Louis program office. Traditionally, the contractors and government officials are at different locations and only meet occasionally. Now Navy officials are embedded with Boeing.
“That really affords quick decision making, face-to-face contact,” Bujold said. “There’s no meeting that is closed there. They’re invited to any of our day-to-day execution. Alternatively, they’re empowered so they can make decisions without us spending a lot of time back and forth over [formal] communications. That allows us to execute quicker and turn things.”
New authorities from Congress and policies at the Pentagon have allowed top officials to delegate more decision-making authorities down to program managers in the field.
“We view it as extremely enabling for communication and for interaction,” Bujold siad. “It builds that speed to decision that’s really characterized by how this program is going to execute throughout the phases.”
Bujold is able to walk into his Navy counterpart’s office and ask a question and get an immediate answer. This is saving days — even weeks — from previous programs.