Navy Unmanned Aircraft Returns to Carrier Flight Ops

The Navy's unmanned X-47B lands aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.

The Navy's unmanned X-47B lands aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. US Navy

Tests operations in conjunction with manned aircraft

The Navy’s X-47B unmanned aircraft returned to sea yesterday on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and for the first time conducted flight operations with manned aircraft.

The fighter-sized X-47B made the first carrier landing of an unmanned aircraft July 10, 2013, on the USS George H.W. Bush operating off the Virginia coast and first flew off the Roosevelt in November 2013.

Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Aviation office, said the tests showed the X-47B could take off, land and fly in the carrier pattern with manned aircraft, while the Roosevelt maintained normal flight deck operations.

The first series of manned/unmanned operations began yesterday morning, when the ship launched an F/A-18 and the X-47B. After an 8-minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area. The deck-based operator used a new deck-handling control to manually move the aircraft out of the way of other aircraft, allowing the F/A-18 to touch down close behind the X-47B's recovery.

Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command, said upgrades to software on the X-47B enabled it to operate on the Roosevelt with manned aircraft. Lt. Cmdr. Brian Hall, X-47B flight test director, said: "We re-engineered the tailhook retract actuator and updated operating software to expedite wingfold during taxi, both of which reduce time in the landing area post-recovery. Our goal was to minimize the time in the landing area and improve the flow with manned aircraft in the landing pattern."

The Navy said this launch and recovery sequence will be repeated multiple times over the course of the planned test periods. Cosgrove said the X-47B will conduct flight operations from the Roosevelt for 10 days, including night operations. Northrop Grumman developed the X-47B and manufactured two test aircraft under a contract estimated to be worth $800 million.

The Navy said it will continue X-47B flight operations over the next year to refine the concept of operations to demonstrate the integration of unmanned carrier-based aircraft within the carrier environment and mature technologies for its planned  Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system.