The US Navy made aviation history on 10 July when a Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system-demonstrator aircraft made a first-ever arrested landing onboard the aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush, which was sailing some 70 miles (113km) of the Virginia coast.
The X-47B flew in from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, at about mid-afternoon. Initially, the aircraft, flanked by two Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, made a high pass over the ship as planned. The X-47B circled the giant vessel following the carrier's normal traffic pattern to make its first landing on ship. The result was what looked to be a picture-perfect trap.
Deck crews quickly checked the experimental aircraft, and after a short interlude the X-47B made its way forward to the ship's forward catapults. The X-47B was then launched from the Bush's port bow catapult, taking to the air to complete its second trap of the day. Over the course of the next week, the X-47B will complete more traps, navy officials say.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who had flown onto the Bush along with other top naval leadership, heralded the event as monumental as Eugene Ely's first take-offs and landings from a modified ship deck more than 100 years ago.
"This will rank there with the day Eugene Ely stapped himself into a Curtis biplane and took-off from a ship for the first time," Mabus says. "What you saw here is the first of the next generation of naval aircraft."
Mabus says that follow-on naval unmanned aircraft will keep the carrier relevant well into the future as the mix of aircraft onboard changes. The integration of unmanned aircraft into the carrier air wing will not only enable the vessels to operate as they do now, but it will afford the carrier dramatic new capabilities, he says. "You saw the future today," he adds.
Chief of naval operations Adm Jon Greenert says that the greatest feature of future carrier-based unmanned aircraft will be their payloads. "What you saw today was effectively a truck," he says. "But it was a miraculous technological feat."
The USN's follow-on Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme, which will leverage the X-47B's technology, will bring persistence and an adaptable payload to the carrier air wing, he says.
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 aerial refueling. Using the aircraft for that mission would free up manned aircraft like the Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for their primary strike mission, Greenert says. "Then it'll evolve as we build more payloads," he says.