by Tommy H. Thomason

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Well, That Was Special

On 10 July 2013, the Northrop Grumman X-47B made the first unmanned, autonomous, arrested landing on an aircraft carrier at sea.
 U.S. Navy photo MC3 Kevin J. Steinberg
I think I've included enough qualifiers as did the Navy press release (although for some reason it didn't mention Northrop Grumman). They are necessary because this wasn't the first or even second autonomous carrier landing. See Nevertheless it was the first without an on-board pilot to take over in the event of a malfunction, a significant step in demonstrating the maturity of the technology required to operate an unmanned airplane from an aircraft carrier. 

The at-sea landing was preceded by a very careful buildup program that included shore-based launches and arrested landings. The first at-sea event was a deck handling evaluation aboard Harry S. Truman in December 2012.

This was followed by the first catapult launch at sea from George H.W. Bush in May 2013, erroneously claimed to be the first catapult launch of an unmanned airplane at sea (see

The final build up event was a series of at-sea touch and goes with the hook up in late May 2013.

At that point, the Navy had enough confidence that nothing untoward would happen during the first at-sea landing to invite the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, and the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm Johathan Greenert, to stand on the LSO platform.
Note that the flight deck is lined with C-2 CODs, another expression of faith in the X-47B's computers to keep it inside the foul lines.

The event was not really marred by the X-47B taking its own waveoff on its third landing attempt and being directed to fly back to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility for a shore-based final recovery. That proved that self-check features in the on-board computers were functioning as intended to keep the X-47B from continuing an approach with a possible fault in a critical system.

The two X-47Bs will soon be retired to museums at Patuxent River, Maryland and Pensacola, Florida. Time will tell whether the bright future of operational Unmanned Combat Air Systems lies ahead or will go unrealized...

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