History was made this morning when the U.S. Navy's stealthy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator (UCAS-D) drone became the first unmanned stealth jet to take off from an aircraft carrier's catapults.
The jet launched off the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean at 11:18 this morning and landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland at 12:24 p.m., according to Navy public affairs tweets:
- MT@bull_pao: Can confirm#X47Blaunched from BUSH at 11:18A. Operating around the carrier. Images and video to followabout 23 minutes ago
- #BREAKING:#USNavyhistory is made! Was airborne at 11:18A.
- @Bull_pao5m X47 landed at Pax River 1224--65 minute flight--video and images to follow
(To be fair, The Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes may have beat the Navy in announcing the flight on Twitter)
The plane was supposed to conduct several simulated carrier landing approaches before flying inland and accross the Chesapeak Bay to Patuxent River, according to this Navy press release.
The plane followed taxiid onto one of the ship's bow catapults and then lauched into the air where it was controlled by an operator aboard the ship, as the jet made its way closer to shore, control was passed to an operator stationed at Patuxent River who controlled the jet on its flight home through mainland airspace.
Remember, the X-47B is meant to prove that a fighter-size stealth jet can operated from the crowded deck of an aircraft carrier. The Northrop Grumman-made drone is meant to test technology that will allow unmanned stealth jets capable of performing spy and strike missions to safely taxi on a flight deck and execute missions autonomously -- with a human supervising them but not flying them, even as the plane makes carrier landings, one of the toughest feats in aviation. (Click here to read about the technology the Navy will use for this.)
The X-47B program is set to continue until 2015, paving the way for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike program, which aims to have a fleet of stealth unmanned spy and strike jets operating from carriers by the start of the next decade.
Stealthy, unmanned jets capable of operating from carriers and doing everything from aerial refueling to spy and strike missions will play a role in the Navy's strategy for dealing with the great distances involved in operations in the Pacific region. Such craft could take off from a carrier far aways from an enemy's shores -- and hopefully out of the range of anti-ship missiles -- refuel each other and penetrate an enemy's advanced air defenses to perform strike or spy missions.
The U.S. isn't the only nation developing such UAVs. Britain, France, Russia and possibly China are also working stealthy, jet powered drones capable of performing combat missions in the face of modern air defenses.
Click here to read more about the X-47B.