The Northrop Grumman X-47B program is expected to perform its first touch-and-go landings -- intentional bolters -- on the carrier George Bush within a few days, following its first at-sea catapult launch on Tuesday. A few first-hand observations:
The X-47B actually clicked through its pre-launch preparations faster than we had been told to expect. It took very little time for the aircraft to maneuver up to the end of the catapult. The remote control unit developed for the tests looks a bit cumbersome:
However, it appears to work, and the team's view seems to be that the gaming industry will generate the technology for a definitive system for Uclass. The team feel that they have proved the principle: that the unmanned aircraft can follow the same commands as a manned aircraft and can maneuver itself on the deck in the same way.
The X-47B looked quite stable on the approach, just rolling a little through the burble on the second pass, which waved off 50 feet from the deck.
A non-planned wave-off can be initiated four ways: automatically by the vehicle; by the mission operator; by Paddles, the landing signal officer; or by Pri-Fly (primary flying control) in the tower. The mission operator "calls the ball" in the same way as the pilot, and lights on the landing gear indicate that the aircraft intends to land.
Navy officers are very clear on a distinction between the Navy and the Air Force, which insists on talking about remotely piloted aircraft: Navy "unmanned air systems" have operators, not pilots. Of course, the Navy hasn't been forced to divert a large number of qualified pilots into UAVs, as the USAF has been (Predators and Reapers are the USAF's second-largest pilot force after the F-16), and will not have to do so for a long time. But the fact remains that flying a UAV with a stick and rudder or any semblance thereof is (to quote an Airbus guy's comment on the Boeing 777's back-driven yoke) like putting a steering wheel on a horse. "Pilot" is a bit of a misnomer.
Speaking of pilots, the Navy's attitude towards adopting the X-47B's automatic landing technology for manned operations is quite positive. The potential benefits -- less wear and tear on airframes and less training time for the air group, along with improved safety -- are substantial.