The US Navy made aviation history on 10 July when a NorthropGrumman X-47B unmanned combat air system-demonstrator aircraft made a first-everarrested landing onboard the aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush, which wassailing some 70 miles (113km) of the Virginia coast.
The X-47B flew in from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, atabout mid-mid. Initially, the aircraft, flanked by two Boeing F/A-18E/F SuperHornets, made a high pass over the ship as planned. Then aircraft circled thegiant vessel following the carrier’s normal traffic pattern to make its firstcarrier landing. The result was what looked to be a picture perfect trap.
Deck crews quickly checked the experimental aircraft, andafter a short interlude the X-47B made its way forward to the ship’s forwardcatapults. The X-47B was the shot-off the Bush’ port bow catapult, taking tothe air to complete its second trap of the day. Over the course of the nextweek, the X-47B will complete more traps, navy officials say.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who had flown onto the Bushalong with other top naval leadership, heralded the event as monumental asEugene Ely’s first take-offs and landings from a ship more than 100 years ago. “Thiswill rank there with the day Eugene Ely stapped himself into a Curtis biplaneand took-off from a ship for the first time,” Mabus says. “What you saw here isthe first of the next generation of naval aircraft.”
Mabus says that follow-on naval unmanned aircraft will keepthe carrier relevant into well into the future as the mix of aircraft onboardchanges. The integration of unmanned aircraft into the carrier air wing willnot only enable the vessels to operate as they do now, but it will afford thecarrier dramatic new capabilities, he says. “You saw the future today,” he adds.
Chief of naval operations Adm Jon Greenert says that thegreatest feture of future carrier-based unmanned aircraft will be theirpayloads. “What you saw today was effectively a truck,” he says. “But it was amiraculous technological feat.”
The USN’s follow-on Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillanceand Strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme, which will leverage the X-47B’s technology,will bring persistence and an adaptable payload to the carrier air wing, hesays.
Initially, some of the missions of the UCLASS will be rudimentary,Greenert says. But the capability will grow.
One mission the USN is looking at for the aircraft is aerialrefueling. Using the aircraft for that mission would free up manned aircraftlike the Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for theirprimary strike mission, Greenert says. “Then it’ll evolve as we build morepayloads,” he says.