Drone Aborts Fourth Carrier Landing Attempt


A type of experimental U.S. Navy drone that became the first unmanned jet to land aboard a moving aircraft carrier failed in a fourth and final attempt to accomplish the feat.

The X-47B made by Northrop Grumman Corp. yesterday experienced unspecified technical issues while in flight and officials decided to abort the mission before the aircraft made it to the ship, according to an article by Christopher Cavas, a reporter for Defense News who broke the story, citing unnamed sources within the service.

Navy officials later confirmed to Military.com that the plane — which has the call sign “Salty Dog 501” and was not the same one that performed last week’s landings — was instructed to forgo the landing aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean.

“During the flight, the aircraft experienced a minor test instrumentation issue” and returned to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where it landed safely, Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mailed statement. “There were no additional opportunities for testing,” as the ship returned to port today, she said.

The other X-47B, known as “Salty Dog 502,” on July 10 completed two landings and takeoffs aboard the carrier about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., in what officials heralded as the future of naval aviation. A third touchdown planned for that day was aborted after one of the aircraft’s navigational computers failed.

The two aircraft are highly autonomous. The computer-controlled unmanned systems take off, fly pre-programmed routes and land in response to mouse clicks from a mission operator, according to Northrop.

The shipboard exercises are the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.

“The X-47B aircraft and the entire carrier system passed with flying colors,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, who manages the program for the Navy, said in the statement.

The effort was designed to demonstrate the technology’s potential and pave the way for a larger program, called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, to build an armed, carrier-based drone fleet.

The Navy wants to add operational drones to air wings in 2019 to extend the range of carrier groups. Unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for more than a day — far longer than manned planes. The systems will be initially used for surveillance and refueling missions, and eventually for strike operations, officials said.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus after the drone’s successful carrier landings penned an op-ed in which he argued that the demonstration proved how the nuclear-powered fleet will remain relevant for decades to come.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • JohnB

    Is this autonomous or remote control ?

  • Musson

    It took four attempts but the AI brain finally came to it’s senses –

  • Ron

    Need some more fine tweaking!

  • BlackOwl18E

    Drone revolution = totally over played.

    Manned tactical aviation = still completely relevant for the future.

    Is it any coincidence that 2019 is also the same date that the F-35C was supposed to reach IOC? That’s when he wants the UCLASS drones? Sounds suspicious to me…

  • majr0d

    “The shipboard exercises are the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.”

    So each of the two X47B’s have $700mil sunk into them and so far are 50% on landing on a carrier.

    I’m a fan of drones. We need to continue development but those pointing to this as evidence of the relevancy of the CSG or radical progress are drinking the snake oil. We need carriers and drones but the face of naval aviation warfare hasn’t dramatically changed nor will it for the near future.

    • Azrael630

      This isn’t a 50% failure of the drones. Like the space shuttle and most other aircraft, the drone has multiple nav computers. If one fails it has backups. This is the testing period and so no chances are taken. Can you imagine the nobrain press if this thing had crashed due to engine trouble and it was found that a nav system was also weak? It’s Bush’s fault!

      The other was a failure in some of the test equipment that actually isn’t even part of the aircraft. The entire military is risk adverse today. I flew on the early AC-130 gunships and they were definitely NOT risk adverse back then. Today they wouldn’t have been allowed off the ground.

      • majr0d

        The drones have made two of four attempts at landing, 50%. Yep, it’s the testing phase but we don’t have the same understanding attitude towards missile defense or the F35.

        I’m not against drones but the out of control cheerleading is a bit over the top. This is the 3rd or 4th article in a row on the X47B and has the least enthusiastic comments. Check out the others.

        Drones are great. We should pursue the technology but the belief by some that drones are cheaper or will be doing the most difficult/important missions or make up the majority of aviation in the next decade or so are buying the snake oil so many defense industry sales reps and technophiles sell.

        Agree the military is extremely risk averse (just like the country and politicians). Risk aversity has become a strategic weakness and the primary driver for many weapon systems e.g. JLTV & GCV.

        • William_C1

          It seems we have jumped from being too risky (FCS Manned Ground Vehicle program) to being too risk averse (GCV).

          • blight_

            Different types of risk; unless I misread what you meant.

            Did you mean FCS was risky in terms of too many gizmos? Or perhaps if FCS didn’t deliver a sufficiently armored and armed product to fight the enemy?

            And for GCV, I’m sure you meant that GCV was skewed towards heavy and between 60 and 80 tons for an IFV…but it too also had a fair number of doodads.

      • killerccrawford

        I’ve seen the Angel of Death AC-130A and I have 3,500 hrs on A model slicks. You gunships guys regularly took off overgrossed and did a lot of other stuff too crazy to contemplate.

    • tiger
      • majr0d

        Using that logic the F35 program at over $300 bil and lifetime costs topping a trillion must make it the best aviation weapon ever.

        It’s dangerous to assume the check writers know what they are doing.

        I still support the program but your logic leaves a lot to be desired.


    “Minor” problems. I like Northrop Grumman, and the X-47B, but if a problem is minor, and happens during wartime, how can you abort the landing? If its minor, than should it not effect landing?

  • hibeam

    Just wait until they unionize. They will land when they damn well please.

  • ms6

    Keep our current stock of drones for close ground support and scrap the rest of this automated ship borne nonsense.

  • hibeam

    ms6 permission to come aboard sir. Your left frontal lobe seems to be taking on water.

  • Beef Supreme

    Top Gun 2: A toy robot becomes a carrier drone.

  • SFC Pappy
  • SFC Pappy
  • SFC Pappy
  • SFC Pappy

    A UAV is a needed piece of equipment in the Navy. Surveillance? OK. Refueling? OK. Transporting supplies? OK.

    I’ve been flown on and off of a carrier. Piloted by a human being on said aircraft. I trusted them to do their job.

    But some black shoe in Washington will get the bright idea of using them as COD’s for transportation of people onto and off of a carrier. No fracking way will I let a desk jockey sitting on ship fly me onto an aircraft carrier. Either its flown by a pilot IN the aircraft with as much to lose as I do or I’ll wait on the pier.

    What are these UAV pilots (snort) going to do in high seas or bad weather?? Can’t fly seat of your pants from an office chair. A carrier certified pilot is irreplaceable when it comes to pucker factor flying. These electronic landing aids don’t do everything to make successful fowl weather or heavy seas flying.

    I see a great future for the flight deck fire brigade in aircraft crash firefighting.

    Humans are priceless. But carrier pilots don’t crash that often. But at how many million each for a UAV can these RC pilots crash before the Navy says enough?

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