Navy launches unmanned warplane off carrier Bush

By Dianna Cahn The Virginian-Pilot ©


In November 1910, Eugene Ely made history when he flew his biplane off the cruiser Birmingham, along the Norfolk coastline.

His plane touched the water before he recovered and climbed high enough to aim for Willoughby Spit, where he landed five minutes later. Naval aviation had been born.

This morning, just miles from the same Virginia coastline, the Navy for the first time launched an unmanned warplane off an aircraft carrier, catapulting into new era of aviation at sea.

The launch of the prototype X-47B off the carrier George H. W. Bush followed months of shore-based launch tests at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. But this was the first time that operators put an automated surveillance and strike craft into the air using the same steam-powered catapult that powers fighter jets and surveillance planes off a carrier flight deck.

Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy’s X-47B program manager, said in a briefing last week that the objective is to show that unmanned planes can play an active role in warfare operations at sea. That means demonstrating that they can function on a carrier flight deck and can handle the G-forces of a catapult launch.

“These are very, very exciting times for unmanned systems and the relevance of aircraft carriers,” Engdahl said.

Two prototypes of unmanned aerial vehicle are being tested. The X-47B, developed by Northrop Grumman, has a 62-foot wingspan, significantly larger than the F/A-18 Super Hornet’s 44-foot wingspan.

While the craft is programmed to fly itself, an operator can modify the flight by sending digitized commands for it do specific tasks like climb to a specific altitude or head to a specific location. While it taxis on the flight deck, its steering and speed are manually controlled by an operator with a remote control.

Today’s operation followed a successful shore-based catapult launch of the X-47B in November. The difference between that flight from Patuxent River and the one off the Bush on today was minimal, said Don Blottenberger, deputy manager of the program.

“This unmanned aircraft, the way that the software is programmed and the way that it operates, has no idea when it left the TC-7 catapult ashore at the Patuxent River that it was not flying off the front end of an aircraft carrier,” he said.

If anything, Blottenberger said, the Navy’s earlier testing put it through even more challenging conditions.

“Those catapult launches ashore were at higher G-levels, they were at higher air speeds and they were more rigorous that anything the aircraft would see coming off the front end of an aircraft carrier,” he said.

In December, Navy and manufacturer Northrop Grumman operators took one of the two X-47B prototypes out to sea for the first time, lifting it by crane onto the aircraft carrier Truman. There, they practiced maneuvering the craft on the flight deck and runway, a first step toward demonstrating it could successfully integrate into the complex environment of a busy flight deck.

Operators have also conducted arrested landings on shore at Patuxent.  Over the next two weeks, they will practice approaches that will come increasingly closer to landing.

“The only difference between the shore-based environment and the carrier environment is the fact that the carrier flight deck moves up and down and it moves through the water,” Blottenberger said. “So the only real change in dynamics through the entire equation is the carrier flight deck.”

As with catapult tests, the program operators conducted vigorous tests with hard landings and fast-arrested landings “to make absolutely positive that it can handle the moving deck out there,” he said.





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