The Northrop Grumman-built U.S. Navy X-47B, an Unmanned Combat Air System–Demonstration (UCAS-D) Next-gen Unmanned Fighter, took its maiden flight on a hazy California morning, Feb. 4, 2011 at Edwards Air Force Base. The flight began at 2:09 p.m. PST and lasted for 29 minutes.
The goal of the program is to create a tailless, fighter-sized unmanned system capable of safely landing and taking off from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier. The main aim of this first voyage, however, was to collect data to help verify and validate the vehicle’s navigation and guidance software, as well as the aerodynamic control of its innovative tailless design.
Prior to the flight, a multitude of tests were performed to verify the airworthiness of the vehicle through proof load testing; propulsion system reliability through accelerated mission tests; software maturity and reliability through rigorous simulations (I’d love to know the software tool they used. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more.); and overall system reliability through low-speed and high-speed taxi tests.
The aircraft will remain at Edwards Air Force Base for further flight testing until later this year, when it will be moved to Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Patuxent River, Md., to undergo additional testing, this time to ensure readiness for maritime and carrier-based trials.
“First flight is a giant confidence boost to the entire UCAS-D industry team,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, UCAS-D program manager, U.S. Navy, proclaimed. “It provides us with important momentum as we now to turn to demonstrating that this first-of-its-kind air system can not only fly, but also integrate smoothly with carrier operations.”
The Navy awarded the six-year contract to Northrop Grumman in August of 2007; the contract called for the delivery of two X-47B fighter-sized aircraft. The vehicle is set to enable groundbreaking capabilities, such as first-ever carrier launches and recoveries by an autonomous, unmanned aircraft with a low-observable-relevant planform and autonomous aerial refueling.
Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor and is working with many other top-notch mil/aero companies, including GKN Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, Eaton, General Electric, Hamilton Sundstrand, Dell, Honeywell, Goodrich, Moog, Wind River, Parker Aerospace, and Rockwell Collins.
This geek is in love with this aircraft! It is sleek, sexy, and just plain cool. Most importantly, it brings us a step closer to not having to put our valued soldiers directly in harm’s way–that is, until our computers and robots become self aware and Skynet takes over. (Terminator reference… sorry, I am a geek, after all. And if you got that reference, perhaps you are one, too.)