Watch Australia's first new military aircraft in half a century take flight. Boeing's unmanned "Loyal Wingman" accompanies fighter jets into combat

Boeing’s new Loyal Wingman drone has completed its first flight in the Australian outback. The aircraft is designed to accompany fighter jets into combat. The drone is also the first domestically produced Australian military aircraft in more than 50 years.

Last weekend, Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force reached an important milestone deep in the Outback: the maiden flight of the first new military aircraft designed and manufactured in Australia in more than half a century.

Boeing’s Loyal Wingman drone will act as a test bed for what the aerospace manufacturer calls “air teaming,” or the side-by-side flying of crewed and uncrewed warplanes.

The flight took place on March 1, with a pilot controlling the aircraft remotely from Australia’s Woomera Range Complex. Boeing is working with the Australian government and 35 Australian industry teams to develop the aircraft.

Boeing first unveiled the Loyal Wingman in mock-up form at Australia’s 2019 Avalon air show. Since then, the real aircraft has performed taxi, ground handling, navigation, and control tests, as well as tests of its pilot interface. Boeing claims the aircraft went from design to flight testing in just 3 years, thanks to the use of model-based digital engineering techniques.

During the test flight, the aircraft completed “a successful take-off under its own power before flying a predetermined route at different speeds and altitudes to verify flight functionality and demonstrate the performance of the Airpower Teaming System design,” Boeing says.

The Loyal Wingman concept envisions crewed and uncrewed aircraft flying together on combat missions. The uncrewed aircraft could autonomously fly a mission in support of the crewed aircraft, carrying jamming equipment, sensors, or even air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons.

An uncrewed drone could act as the eyes and ears of a fighter jet, allowing the crewed jet to turn off its radar and thus make it more difficult to detect. The drone could also fly ahead of a crewed fighter, hunting surface-to-air missile systems and clearing the way for jets with humans inside. Two drones could also act as flying magazines, with crewed jets directing them to launch missiles and bombs against targets.

Boeing Australia will build four Loyal Wingman prototypes and use their data to advance its air teaming program. It’s not clear if Loyal Wingman will become an operational system at this point, though Boeing hints it can already carry unspecified payloads.