X-47B Completes First Pax River Flight

Naval aviation officials chose 11 a.m. on Sunday morning to make history as the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator made its first flight at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

The tailess, unmanned aircraft designed to land on aircraft carriers made a 35 minute flight taking off from Pax River and flying over the Chesapeake Bay reaching an altitude of 7,500 feet and an air speed of 180 knots. Navy officials considered Sunday’s first test flight a success.

The service’s first unmanned strike aircraft arrived from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in June to continue its testing regimen. Pax River has a  simulated aircraft carrier environment to test the incredible feat of landing an unmanned aircraft on a carrier at sea. Navy leaders hope to make the first X-47B landing on a carrier in 2013.

“The X-47B’s flight today is another important step closer to the Navy’s vision of operating tailless, autonomous, unmanned systems from aircraft carriers,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager, said in a statement.

Navy officials made the X-47B’s first test flight at Edwards in February 2011 (see a video here). The unmanned aircraft demonstrator has completed a host of tests leading up to its flight to Pax River to include reaching an altitude of 15,000 feet. Sunday marked the X-47Bs first test flight since arriving at Pax River.

A team made up of officials and engineers from the Navy and Northrop Grumman, builder of the X-47, will continue to work to master the art of landing on a carrier. Test flights started at Edwards where the X-47 extended the tail hook. Tests at Pax River will include procedures following “bolter runs” which occur when the tail hook does not catch and an aircraft must immediately take off again.

“This milestone event is the first of many flights at Pax River to demonstrate X-47B’s compatibility with aircraft carrier flight procedures and launch/recovery equipment,” Matt Funk, UCAS lead test engineer said in a Navy statement. “The unique airspace and ship equipment at Pax River allow us to conduct the testing here before we land aboard the aircraft carrier next year.”

We expect to learn more Tuesday when the Navy has invited reporters down to Pax River to find out what the service has planned for the X-47B demonstrator.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • Lance

    Looks like a mini unmanned B-2.

  • yaboy

    Now taking RFPs for Top Gun 2: Unmanned Volleyball.

    • Musson

      The next Tailhook scandle will involve two cloud servers, a network router and some WD40.

      • Chuck

        Too funny.

        • Chris

          gave me a laugh

  • murray

    Great , automatic navy

  • Nadnerbus

    After skynet takes control, they will fly with a perfect operational record.

  • navrider

    hey defense tech writer,
    The hook does not catch the aircraft, it catches the arresting cable !!! … duh !!!

    • shawn1999

      Uh, he didn’t say it did:

      which occur when the tail hook does not catch and an aircraft must immediately take off again

      The “and” separates the two thoughts: one being “the tail hook does not catch” and the second being “an aircraft must immediately take off again”

  • OldmanRick

    I love tec, but I have one question. What happens to all this great tec after a high alt nuclear blast?

    • EW3

      EMP is not it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

      EMP works against best against long transmission lines like power and communications.

      The defense against EMP is a Faraday shield. An aircraft is almost an ideal Faraday shield which pass the pulse around the electronics inside the airframe. Inside the airframe many components are inside metal boxes adding to even greater protection.

    • STemplar

      The end of civilization as nations annihilate each other with nukes.

    • Dave

      It all ceases to function. Case closed

  • Chris

    That isn’t exactly plausible. The next world war will be far from nuclear.

    • JCitizen

      Oh, I wouldn’t put it past Iran to drop one, but it will probably be hidden aboard a ship and delivered the harbor in New York city!

  • Prodozul

    I’m confused now is the X-47B just a technology demonstrator or is it going into full production?

    • tiger

      It’s a x craft. X for experimental.

      • Prodozul

        Don’t know why I thought otherwise…

        • shawn1999

          Becuase many X’s become operational (XF-22)

  • Chuck

    So tell me again, how did we lose that Sentenal to Iran? I like pilots, more reliable than computers, they won WWII, they have no fear.

    • tiger

      Computers don’t blackout in a 9G turn. Computers don’t eat,sleep, or use the head. Computers don’t get apoxia from a bad O2 system. They don’t do dumb pilot error things like fly a Airbus into the ocean.

      • blight_

        In the case of that Airbus, the pilots misread their instrumentation and reacted accordingly…or am I mixing up my incidents?

        That said, if a nation deploys ground stations that broadcast on the same frequencies as GPS (similar to WAAS) conceivably one could confuse a GPS-guided UAV. You need backup INS and a starfinder…that said, nobody has any clue yet how Iran got their hands on the RQ-170.

        • Ben

          I thought that’s exactly how Iran brought the RQ-170 down. Wasn’t it confirmed that they broadcast false GPS data to it in order to fool the thing into landing in Iran?

        • Johnny Ranger

          If it’s the Brazil (maybe Argentina?)-to-France Airbus incident, as I recall the aircraft’s pitot tubes were fouled. The pilots read the data right, it was just bad data.

        • tiger


          Man & machine screwed up…

      • Chris

        In regards to the airbus, there are some things involving the aircraft systems that aren’t exactly publicly toted or understood. The pilots DID stall it into the ocean. But there are flaws on the airbus that even I find puzzling.

    • STemplar

      The same way we lost a F117 to the Serbs, shit goes wrong in war.

  • tiger

    I can’t wait for some guy to give it the call sign, Tin Man like the movie “Stealth.”
    Behold the future kids. Next step before Robotech fighters & Gundams do the fighting.

    • blight_

      Robotech VF and Gundam mecha had organic, sentient pilots.

      Making allowances for the Zenetraedi and the Invid, who had their own mecha.

  • blight_

    Probably with a local ground station as control; or does the Navy have plans to co-locate at Creech?

    Ideally, we should put its control electronics aboard a demonstrator ship, park it out to sea and see if it can teleoperate effectively from a distance.

    • TomUK

      I think that the original concept was they’re supposed to be tactically independent, operating as a ‘swarm’ nevertheless, and intended to be under some sort of vague ‘sub-strategic’ programming. No doubt someone’s thought that through, bearing in mind the Law Of Unintended Cosquences.

      Huge Achilles heels are GPS, Link 16, et al. – I think the ‘EMP comments’, above, are very relevant.

  • STemplar

    At the rate this program is going it will conduct carrier landings before the F35.

    • coolhand77

      Umm, isn’t the B already doing carrier landings?

      • STemplar

        Ummmm, no, it can’t catch the wire and it’s likely to be at best a year behind schedule. If LM’s tweaks dont’ work who knows how long.

        • Chris

          “B” variant is STOVL… “C” variant is the beefed-up USN version with the tailhook problems.

      • STemplar

        The B is for the USMC by the way, it isn’t meant to land on carriers, it’s meant to land on amphibs designed for it because it would like melt decking on a CVN.

  • Pappa51

    It still takes a man to manage it.
    Star Trek is closer than we think.

  • LetsLobRob

    I like the idea of te Navy getting into this technoogy…Good idea. (the Air Force can’t own it all).

  • LetsLobRob

    P.S. (I’m Air Force).

  • chernobyl

    I’d rather see the x-48 come to fruition.

  • Michael Gene

    UAV pilots sitting half way across the globe with no skin in the game will never be as formidable as a fighter or bomber pilot in the cockpit with his life on the line.

    • tiger

      There are 10,000+ Dead & missing 8th AF bomber crew who would beg to differ. Nor does 7 years in the Hanoi Hilton sound like a trade off for a target destroyed. There is a time & place for silk scarfs & guts.

      • blight_

        Look up Iceal Hambleton. Shot down in RVN, spent a lot of lives to rescue one man because he had worke at Strategic Air Command, had high-level clearances and worked on countering SAM systems; the first “high value target”.

        And they had to do it after Vietnamization.

        There is always a risk and human cost to deploying a manned platform. Before, we had no options and had to pay the price, even if we were dropping dumb bombs on a bridge and losing pilots for a bomb that didn’t hit or caused minor damage.

        With unmanned systems, we can now judge which missions are “worth” a pilot, based on superior response times of a human or the ability to change on the fly, or possibly if satellite systems are destroyed or degraded by a solar flare event, for example…

    • Todd

      Not sure about that. The remote operators do not have anywhere near the situational awareness that a pilot has. Plus they have the General in the next room “helping” to make decisions. I do think that UAVs have a role, I do not think theywill replace piloted craft entirely.

      • blight_

        The problems with UAVs are exacerbated by a combination of transmission of high resolution imagery over the slowest pipeline possible: wireless SATCOM.

        If you focus on air-to-air, you decompose the data to radar/IRST signals, which reduce the data overhead. But the moment your UAVs are intended for ground strike, then you have to image the ground at high res for someone in Creech, and that’s where problems begin.

      • Tiger

        Been going on for 10 years. In fact The USAF turn out more UAV drivers than jet jocks today.

  • Flybuoy

    X-47 is a proof of concept test platform. Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS) will be the initial operational variant. Goal is a carrier launched system for deep strike and surveillance system.

  • Sanem

    Predators and Reapers are the weapon of choice over Afghanistan
    soon enough aircraft like the X-47B will replace manned aircraft in all other missions

  • Brian K

    Here’s some name suggestions, A-47 Coward, A-47 Bully, A-47 Backstabber, A-47 Sucker Punch, A-47 Sneak Thief, etc…

  • common

    This has been flying over OEF/OIF since 2003. This is just a press stunt now.

  • Homer

    When they start taking men OUT of the equation, then there goes the system! Machines may work but they don’t think/reason1 they just do what they are programmed to do! Someone asked, how did we loose that drone? OR Did we, or did someone give it to the camel jockeys? Always think negative when it comes to this, or any govt! It works for me!

    • Riceball

      Where you do get that people are being taken out of the equation with these unmanned drones? Most, if not all, of our drones are called unmanned only because there’s no one inside the cockpit controlling the thing but that doesn’t that there isn’t a human at the other end controlling it. A more accurate way of describing these drones is remotely piloted aircraft, basically our drones are r/c aircraft on steroids; we’re a long way from Macross Plus and Stealth.

  • WD Southworth

    I think it’s great. Now our pilots can stay in the ready room & with a laptop operate their remote delivery systems with no threat to them personally.

    • tiger

      And home for dinner with the wife & kids. “How was work Hun?” Oh, same old stuff. Nailed two guys planing IED’s near Kabul. Could you pass the stove top stuffing?”

      • blight_

        Brings the whole “Home By Christmas” into perspective.

  • old wing

    last pilot out shut out the lights. your finished.

  • Winston

    I heard it was Chinese hackers who actually brought down the RQ-170 Sentinal over Iran. Really.

  • Sam

    That’s the beast of kandahar. That’s been flying forever.

    • blight_

      Beast of Kandahar is either a pile of rubble or an Iranian mockup.

  • speculator

    pilot? is that someone who drives a tugboat?

  • For those who doubt the effectiveness of remotely piloted, or automated combat aircraft (or ANY Combat robotics)…

    I would look into the work of Dr. Ron Arkin at Georgia Tech, where he has literally written the Pentagon’s book on Armed Combat Robotics.

    Combat Robots promise to bring a precision to warfare that is not even possible with humans.

    Robots do not get too hot, too cold, lonely, afraid, angry, vengeful, hungry, fat, lazy, tired, etc…

    And when what we call a “Mistake” has been made by one, it will only happen ONCE for any one given reason.

    Yet how many times have we seen the EXACT SAME MISTAKES made by human warfighters due to stress, fatigue, fear, rage, vengefulness, etc.

    Humans have emotions that can override their reasoning abilities, as is obvious in the comment’s section.

    It is not Cowardly, nor any other dishonorable thing to replace a nation’s troops with robotic weapons.

    To use the words such as “Cowardly” to describe this isn’t even wrong (It’s like answering “Horse” when asked “What is 2+2?”). A robot can be neither brave nor cowardly.

    This saves the lives of our citizens, and allows soldiers to not have to risk their lives fighting asymmetric battles where they are at a disadvantage due to an enemy that itself IS deceptive, cowardly, and dishonest.

    As far as “human pilots” able to outfly this thing.

    In your very wildest dreams!

    No human pilot can sustain a 12g turn for any amount of time. Yet these autonomous combat vehicles can easily pull 6g to 12g maneuvers for any amount of time needed without blacking out, or the need for expensive life-support to keep them alive.

    And, no human can continuously sustain combat activities for much more than 18 hours, safely (and even that is a stretch), whereas these robots can remain on station for years, given in-flight refueling (of course, they will also need in-flight re-arming if that is the case).