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A Navy X-47B drone is launched May 14 off the carrier George H. W. Bush off the coast of Virginia. (Steve Helber / AP)
A Navy X-47B drone is launched May 14 off the carrier George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia. The plane isn't intended for operational use, but it will be used to help develop other unmanned, carrier-based aircraft. (Steve Helber / AP)
AT SEA ON BOARD USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH — The US Navy launched an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier Tuesday morning.
Those simple words mark the most important milestone so far in a planned seven-year, $1.5 billion effort to prove the technologies associated with building and fielding an unmanned, carrier-based jet aircraft, something never done before, and a type of aircraft that many see as underpinning the future of carrier-based air.
“We saw history today,” Rear Adm. Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic, gushed to reporters on board the Bush after the launch of the X-47B concept demonstrator. “This is more than a step. This is a stride into the future of naval aviation.”
The launch took place in calm weather on a sunny day about a hundred miles off the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland. The X-47B, one of two aircraft built by Northrop Grumman for the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstration program, had been aboard the Bush for several days. This allowed program engineers and the ship’s crew to get used to directing an aircraft around a carrier flight deck — often referred to as the world’s most dangerous workplace — without anyone in the cockpit.
Instead, the aircraft is controlled on the flight deck by a strap-on controller device worn by a crew member.
The X-47B was maneuvered into place on the ship’s catapult No. 1. A group of admirals and high-ranking officials watched from the flight deck with crew members and about two dozen reporters, while more observers gathered on the “vulture’s row” balconies along the carrier’s island superstructure.
The tailless jet, similar in shape to a B-2 bomber but more like an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter in overall size, revved up its engine, the same Pratt and Whitney power plant used in the Air Force’s F-16 fighters. Control was switched to the control tower in the island, signified by a change of green lights on the aircraft’s landing gear to blue. The launch captain gave the traditional salute — returned by the X-47 flashing its navigation lights — and then the go sign. The jet roared, the catapult let go and history was made.
Accompanied by F/A-18 Super Hornets, the little plane made two programmed landing approaches on the ship that were purposefully waved off — program officials want to evaluate and analyze the launch before attempting a landing on board — then flew home to the Navy’s air test center at Patuxent River, Md., a flight of about 150 miles.
“You saw the X-47 fly precisely where we wanted it to,” Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the Navy’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, told reporters. “Today is a red-letter day in naval aviation.”
Both X-47s will continue to take part in flight tests, said Don Blottenberger, the principal deputy program manager for the Navy’s UCAS program.
Blottenberger was on board the Bush with a team of about 100 engineers and technicians from the program. He noted that while the team was discovering differences in preflight calculations from actual operating experience, “there is great correlation between the operating figures and our modeling.”
The flight program will continue to practice arrested landings at Pax River before trying it on the ship, Blottenberger said. He thought an arrested landing might be attempted at sea later this summer, after about 10 more practice landings on land.
The UCAS program of test flights should wrap up by the end of the year, Blottenberger said, with 2014 being spent winding down the program and merging it into the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS), an effort to develop an operational carrier-based jet able to perform strike missions. Several competitors, including Northrop Grumman and Boeing, are expected to vie for the UCLASS contract.
As for the two X-47B aircraft, the Navy has no further plans for the planes after the UCAS program comes to an end.
“We’re looking for a museum” home for the planes, Blottenberger said.