Navy to attempt 1st unmanned carrier landing

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The Navy will attempt to land a drone the size of a fighter jet aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time Wednesday, showcasing the military’s capability to have a computer program perform one of the most difficult tasks a pilot is asked to do.

If all goes as planned, a successful landing of the X-47B experimental aircraft will mean the Navy can move forward with its plans to develop another unmanned aircraft that will join the fleet alongside traditional airplanes to provide around-the-clock surveillance while also possessing a strike capability. The aircraft’s success would pave the way for the U.S. to launch unmanned aircraft without the need to obtain permission from other countries to use their bases.  

The X-47B experimental aircraft will take off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland before approaching the USS George H.W. Bush, which is operating off the coast of Virginia. The drone will try to land by deploying a tailhook that will catch a wire aboard the ship and bring it to a quick stop, just like normal fighter jets do. The maneuver is known as an arrested landing and has previously only been done by the drone on land at Patuxent River. Landing on a ship that is constantly moving while navigating through turbulent air behind the aircraft carrier is seen as a more difficult maneuver.

“Your grandchildren and great grandchildren and mine will be reading about this historic event in their history books. This is not trivial, nor is it something that came lightly,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.

Just like a traditional airplane, if the landing has to be called off for any reason at the last second, it can perform a touch-and-go maneuver. It performed nine such maneuvers in May, when it also took off from an aircraft carrier for the first time.

The X-47B will never be put into operational use, but it will help Navy officials develop future carrier-based drones. Those drones could begin operating by 2020, according to Winter. Four companies are expected to compete for a contract to design the future unmanned aircraft, which will be awarded in Fiscal Year 2014.

The two experimental aircrafts that have been built for the first round of testing will be retired and placed in museums at Patuxent River and at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. The move to expand the capabilities of the nation’s drones comes amid growing criticism of America’s use of Predators and Reapers to gather intelligence and carry out lethal missile attacks against terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Critics in the U.S. and abroad have charged that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight. Still, defense analysts say drones are the future of warfare.

The X-47B is far bigger than the Predator, has three times the range and can be programmed to carry out missions with no human intervention, the Navy said. While the X-47B isn’t a stealth aircraft, it was designed with the low profile of one. That will help in the development of future stealth drones, which would be valuable as the military changes its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, where a number of countries’ air defenses are a lot stronger than Afghanistan’s.

The X-47B has a wingspan of about 62 feet and weighs 14,000 pounds, versus nearly 49 feet and about 1,100 pounds for the Predator. While Predators are typically piloted via remote control by someone in the U.S., the X-47B relies only on computer programs to tell it where to fly unless a human operator needs to step in. The Navy says the aircraft relies on precision GPS navigation, a high-integrity network connection and advanced flight control software to guide itself.

Developed by Northrop Grumman under a 2007 contract at a cost of $1.4 billion, the X-47B is capable of carrying weapons and is designed to be the forerunner for a drone program that will provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting, according to the Navy, which has been giving updates on the project over the past few years.

“It has taken several years of software development, thousands of simulated landings in high fidelity labs and many hours of flight test in the Patuxent River landing pattern to prove this aircraft is up for the challenge,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, program manager for the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System wrote in a blog post. “Today X-47B is ready!”

The X-47B can reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet and has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles, versus 675 for the Predator. The Navy plans to show the drone can be refueled in flight, which would give it even greater range.


Brock Vergakis can be reached at .

4 thoughts on “Navy to attempt 1st unmanned carrier landing

  1. I guess the Navy hasn’t learned from the movie, “Stealth”, now have we? (as bad of a movie as that was)

    So what if the computer malfunctions and blows the hell out of a city or anyone or anything else just as long as we have our terminator like drones. That’s the most important thing. Unbelievable!

    They think people will just forget about the potential for disaster and continue on with it like psychopaths would because according to them the benefits outweigh civilian life.


    “The X-47B will never be put into operational use, but it will help Navy officials develop future carrier-based drones. Those drones could begin operating by 2020, according to Winter. Four companies are expected to compete for a contract to design the future unmanned aircraft, which will be awarded in Fiscal Year 2014.”

    Don’t you just love how they say it will NEVER be in use in the first sentence almost implying that this means nothing, and then in the next sentence, say that “those drones could begin operating by 2020”. Well I guess that pretty much gets rid of NEVER, now doesn’t it?

    It reminds me of the Communist tactic that I had to always deal with while teaching in China which was, “Let’s just try it out this one time. If it doesn’t work then we’ll scrap it. Otherwise, we will continue to do it and make it a part of our platform”, regardless of the fact the whole thing was a bad idea to begin with. Let’s keep pushing it though!

    These bastards will never learn. “If it ain’t broke, DON’T FIX IT!”

    I hate people who say, “Well, we should ALWAYS be thinking of ways to improve things and make them better, even if they are still good now, otherwise how will we grow? We will become stagnant and rusty.” BULLSHIT!!!

    Some things aren’t meant to be improved and this drone thing is a perfect example of it. But, hey, that’s how these bastards think, PROGRESSIVELY!

  2. NC,…you said’ These bastards will never learn. “If it ain’t broke, DON’T FIX IT!”

    They learned!! And its about getting rid of you and me……..

  3. Is it just me or does that thing look just like the alien ships in Independence day???? Just saying : )

  4. I love how it has launched from a carrier in the past but has never landed on one. So in the dozens of test launches they craned them on board before weighing anchor?

    Also they make it sound like it is a new auto landing system… Its call ACLS auto carrier landing system. A f-18 in ACLS mode 3 (i think it is maybe mode4) can land all by its self. It has been able to for well over a decade. Iv worked on a flight deck. ACLS system has many modes. On my plane it could use ACLS until a few seconds before landing and then the pilot was required to punch the throttle and pull out in the event of a wave off or the tail hook skipping over the arresting cable. My plane was a fly by cable not wire system. On f-18 the pilot is not needed until an LSO or the pilot dis-ables the system and calls for a wave off. Then the pilot has control again. They fly by wire. Thjat means its all CPU input not pulleys.

    These systems, while having issues every now and again(like all navy systems), are very advanced and work very well even in rough seas. Even at night, making the carrier landing everyone speaks of as dangerous and difficult automated and moot.

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