Navy Preps Drone for First Carrier Landing


The U.S. Navy plans to fly the drone that was the first unmanned jet to take off from an aircraft carrier on a series of tests that will culminate in its first-ever landing aboard a ship this summer, an official said.

The batwing-shaped craft, known as the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS, with the call sign “Salty Dog 502,” made history on May 14 when it was catapulted 11:18 a.m. local time from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., according to the service.

The Navy this week plans to fly the drone back to the ship from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., for tests in which it will approach, touch down on the deck and take off without stopping in a maneuver known as “touch-and-go,” according to Navy Capt. Jaime Engdahl, manager of the UCAS program. The tests will continue in June in preparation of landing the Northrop Grumman Corp.-made jet aboard a carrier “later this summer,” he said.

“This is an inflection point in naval aviation and it allows us to prove conclusively that large unmanned systems can work from the deck of aircraft carriers and it shows that we have a unique capability to develop future systems to increase the effectiveness and the range of the carrier battle group,” Engdahl said May 15 during a conference call.

The X-47B earlier this month made its first ground-based arrested landing, in which the tail of the plane captures a cable on the runway to quickly slow the aircraft as it lands. The Navy in coming weeks plans to conduct additional arrested landings on the ground, as well as the touch-down flights on the carrier.

Northrop, based in Falls Church, Va., has built two aircraft for the UCAS program, which has cost $1.4 billion over eight years. Each plane is about the size of an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet.

Engdahl praised yesterday’s take-off and flight of the aircraft, which he said “performed perfectly in all phases of flight.” He also warned that the upcoming tests are equally complex.

“The most technologically demanding and significant portion is actually touching down on a moving flight deck and then continuing to roll down the center line of the runway on the carrier while the aircraft and the carrier are pitching and rolling,” he said.

Northrop has made significant strides in developing the autonomous vehicle for use aboard aircraft carriers, according to Carl Johnson, a vice president and manager of the UCAS program at the company.

“As we found throughout the program, there are exceptions to every rule and you need to prepare for them,” he said during the call. “The start point of the flight and the end point of the flight move. That is a new development in terms of unmanned systems. The significance for us and the flight yesterday is that once launched, the system has to go find its route. It has to compensate itself for not going where it’s initially starting. That is a big problem to solve.”

The UCAS program is designed to demonstrate the technology and lay the groundwork for a larger effort to build the Navy’s armed, carrier-based drone fleet called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.

The service has said it plans to request proposals for a preliminary design review for the UCLASS program this month, followed by a similar request for technology development next month.

Northrop is expected to square off against other defense giants for the work, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Lockheed is pitching the Sea Ghost, Boeing the Phantom Ray and General Atomics the Sea Avenger.

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

12 Comments on "Navy Preps Drone for First Carrier Landing"

  1. Let the free market decide. Though chances are GA will lose and it'll be between Northrop and Boeing, especially since LM already has -22 and -35. Boeing's delegates from SC, KS and WA will be deployed offensively.

  2. Cool. All it needs is a little red laser light, scanning left and right.

  3. USS ENTERPRISE | May 15, 2013 at 8:11 pm | Reply

    Northrop, only praise, my military industrial complex company. Brings hope to the entire US military, air force, navy, the lot.

  4. stephen russell | May 15, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Reply

    Movie is Stealth from 2005 & darn close to movie drone in exterior.
    On DVD & Blu Ray

  5. Really can't wait for that RFP. I really want to see the details on payload including weight and bay dimensions, as well as range. Love the pic also.

  6. I'm waiting for A I air to air combat !

  7. EDI UCAV "Tin Man" confirms callsign.

  8. BZ Navy and Northrup, maybe we can drop the F-35 Turkey II, oops ligtning something er rather


    I'd say things are moving along quite well. I think I read somewhere the landing should be made relatively soon.

  10. How difficult would it be to alter the coding if the carrier had to make an unexpected turn after the X47B launched? Seems it might be an issue if the carrier isn’t where the X47 expects it to be in the pre-mission codes.

  11. Really can’t wait for that RFP. I really want to see the details on payload including weight and bay dimensions, as well as range. Love the pic also.

  12. Genuinely no matter if someone doesn’t understand then its up to other viewers that they will help, so here

    it occurs.

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