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A X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator returns to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on Feb. 4, after completing its first flight. (Northrop Grumman Corp. via Navy)
SAN DIEGO — Nearly four years in the making, an unmanned aircraft made its first flight Friday afternoon over California's desert, marking a milestone for a program which the Navy hopes leads to development of a carrier-based, unmanned bomber.
The bat-wing shaped X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, completed a 29-minute autonomous flight in hazy skies over the desert at Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, according to Northrop Grumman Corp. officials.
The aircraft took off from Edwards at 2:09 p.m. and reached 5,000 feet, flew several racetrack patterns and landed at 2:38 p.m., according to Northrop.
"This event marks a critical step in the program, moving the team forward to meet the demonstration objectives of tailless fighter-sized unmanned aircraft to safety take off from and land on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier," Northrop Grumman officials said in the announcement, released later Friday. The defense giant is the prime contractor and leader of the industry team building the X-47B under a six-year contract issued in 2007 to build two aircraft.
The aircraft will continue flight testing at Edwards and will be transitioned later this year to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where the X-47B will go through additional tests and begin testing at sea and ultimately aboard carriers, tentatively beginning sometime in 2013, Northrop said.
"Designing a tailless, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft from a clean sheet is no small feat," Janis Pamiljans, vice president and UCAS-D program manager for the company's Aerospace Systems sector, said in a statement. "Commitment, collaboration and uncompromising technical excellence among the Navy, Northrop Grumman and the UCAS-D team industry partners made today's flight a reality. We are indeed honored to have given wings to the Navy's vision for exploring unmanned carrier aviation."