Semi-autonomous aviation controls coming to the fleet

By Meghann Myers, Staff writer

They say the most stressful job in the world is landing on an aircraft carrier at night in rough weather. On Thursday, Navy aviation officials are carrying out another round of tests on a control system that promises to take the edge off that sometimes harrowing experience.

Meanwhile, showgoers at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo in Washington, D.C., got a chance to sit in a faux cockpit and try out the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division’s system.

Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies, or MAGIC CARPET, is already integrated into the F-35Cs that pilots from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron will take for a spin, NAWCAD aerospace engineer Steve Moss told Navy Times on Wednesday.

MAGIC CARPET allows a jet to self-correct its altitude, Moss said, as opposed to the constant pushing and pulling pilots do now to stay on course while approaching a carrier.

“You’re constantly moving the throttles, because a jet’s engine is always lagging,” Moss said. “So you’re doing a three-part power correction: You add the power to go forward, pull power off because it’s always too much, then add power because you’ve overcorrected.”

With the other hand, Moss added, the pilot is steering the jet left or right to line up with the carrier. But with every lateral movement, the plane tilts and loses altitude, so the pilot has to balance every movement with another shot from the throttle.

“It’s very complicated and very hard to do, and hard to keep that currency up,” Moss said. “So you have to keep training for it, keep taking training life off of our jets to do that.”

With MAGIC CARPET, pilots are able to steer the jet to the carrier without losing lift, because self-adjusting flaps in the jet’s wings compensate for any path changes, without having to hit the throttle.

“So let’s have the flight controls do the hard part, do the integration part,” Moss said. “Instead of fixed flaps, raise the flaps up a few degrees so you have authority, so the longitudinal stick is now commanding symmetric flaps.

“You’re not fighting it, you’re just flying,” Moss said.

To make things even easier, the cockpit’s heads-up display show’s the carrier’s relative velocity, taking into account its horizontal movement, to help pilots aim at the flight deck.

The Navy’s F-35Cs come with MAGIC CARPET, Moss said, while the fleet’s F/A-18 Hornets will get an upgrade in the 2017-18 time frame.

The integration will be purposely slow, he added. First-tour pilots won’t be flying with MAGIC CARPET, he said, but second-tour pilots who’ve mastered the old system will upgrade.

But the question is, will they want to? Navy fighter pilots have a notoriously difficult job, and are well known for the pride they take in mastering it.

“Every single pilot that’s flown in this has come in with the hairy eyeball like,’ Are you kidding me? You can’t change this. You can’t change the way we fly the aircraft — it’s supposed to be hard,’ ” Moss said.

Their attitudes quickly changed to, “Why don’t we have this already?” he added.

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