NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–Since its first aerial refueling flight last summer, testing of a modification to the Navy’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye early warning aircraft so that it can refuel in flight is going well and has demonstrated it can receive fuel from multiple aircraft, according to a Navy official.

The first U.S. Navy E-2D Advanced Hawkeye equipped with aerial refueling. Photo: Northrop Grumman

“This has been a super successful program in the sense that the men and women who are flying this right now get up there and feel like this is really close to where we want this to be and it won’t take very much tweaking at the end,” Capt. Keith Hash, the program manager for the Navy E-2/C-2 Airborne Tactical Data System Program Office, said a media briefing here.

Development flight testing of the E-2D with the refueling upgrade began last July and will continue through 2018 before moving to an operational assessment in 2019. The July flight was with a Marine Corps KC-130 tanker and since then test program has included Air Force KC-135 and KC-10, and a Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Nash said at the briefing, which was hosted by Northrop Grumman [NOC], the prime contractor for the Advanced Hawkeye and the new refueling capability.

Hash also said a KC-707 operated by Omega Air Refueling has been fully qualified for the E-2D refueling. The commercial KC-707 will be used to train the Navy’s fleet of E-2D pilots once the new capability begins rolling out across the fleet, he said.

For the rest of 2018, the focus on the development flight testing is proving out the handling qualities of the E-2D during refueling operations, Hash said. The plan is to continue to expand the envelope with each of the tankers given the new mission set for the Advanced Hawkeye, he said.

“For our pilots this is a new task,” Hash said, adding that it’s a new “flight regime” as well. He said that for pilots, refueling operations are considered just as intense as landing on a carrier deck.

“We’re trying to make sure we understand and provide the best lessons learned and procedures to the fleet when they start doing this on a regular basis,” Hash said.

Stability augmentation software that is part of the refueling upgrade has helped with the aircraft handling qualities, he said.

Eventually, the E-2D’s will qualify for refueling from the Air Force’s KC-46 tanker, which is closing in on its initial operational capability, and the Navy’s planned MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker, which is in the source selection phase.

Initial operational capability for the new E-2D refueling capability remains set for 2020, Hash and Jane Bishop, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and program manager for E-2 Hawkeye and C-2 Greyhound programs, said at the briefing, which was done in conjunction with the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference. Northrop Grumman is supplying 75 E-2D’s to the Navy and 32 have been delivered so far and the program of record is for all the aircraft to receive the refueling upgrade, Bishop said.

The first upgraded aircraft that will be delivered will be retrofits of existing E-2Ds as the refueling capability will be cut into the production line with the 46th aircraft in the fourth quarter of the government’s fiscal year 2020. It will cost about $6 million and take about six months to retrofit each existing aircraft with the upgrade and $2 million per aircraft in production, Hash and Bishop said. Hash said efforts will be made to reduce the time needed to retrofit aircraft.

The long-lead buys to begin retrofitting aircraft are planned for this year with actual retrofits beginning in 2019, Hash said, adding that the plan is roughly five aircraft per year to receive the new capability.

The refueling feature will allow early warning aircraft to speed to their stations faster, operate farther than ever from an aircraft carrier, and loiter longer, providing more capability against existing and emerging threats.

For the ongoing development test program, three E-2D’s have been retrofitted. Two more aircraft are being modified this year to support the operational testing planned for 2019, Bishop said.

The most obvious upgrade to the E-2Ds is a fixed aerial refueling probe extended from the center of the upper fuselage above and beyond the cockpit and nose of the aircraft. The probe is integrated into the wing center section where the fuel tank is, Bishop said.

Other modifications include changes to the flight control system, the formation lights, and more comfortable crew seating for the longer endurance missions, she said.