Landing a warplane on the deck of an aircraft carrier – especially one underway at night in rough seas – isn’t something for the fainthearted to try.
But imagine doing it without a heart of any kind inside the cockpit?
Northrop Grumman took a big step in that direction last Saturday (video below), when it used a tailhook on its X-47B unmanned drone to grab an arresting cable, the same way Tom “Maverick” Cruise did it in Top Gun. That neat trick allows aircraft to land on relatively short carrier decks.
Sure, it was done at Patuxent River Naval Air Station – on land, in other words – but it is a big deal. It’s yet another marker on the inexorable push to fly fighter-size, jet-powered drones off of carriers without humans at the controls.
It has been less than six months since the X-47B first launched into the sky at Pax River using the same kind of catapult system found on the Navy’s flat tops.
“This precision, shore-based trap by the X-47B puts the UCAS Carrier Demonstration program on final approach for a rendezvous with naval aviation history,” Captain Jaime Engdahl, the Navy’s drone boss, said in a statement issued by Northrop. “It moves us a critical step closer to proving that unmanned systems can be integrated seamlessly into Navy carrier operations.”
There’s a lot of trust involved in letting such a powerful machine taxi around on a carrier deck’s four-acre flight deck, never mind having a sailor hand off takeoffs and landings to a computer at each end of a carrier op.
Better fasten your seat belt: carrier-based trials are slated to start later this month.