Navy Preps Drone for First Carrier Landing


The U.S. Navy plans to fly the drone that was the first unmanned jet to take off from an aircraft carrier on a series of tests that will culminate in its first-ever landing aboard a ship this summer, an official said.

The batwing-shaped craft, known as the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS, with the call sign “Salty Dog 502,” made history on May 14 when it was catapulted 11:18 a.m. local time from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., according to the service.

The Navy this week plans to fly the drone back to the ship from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., for tests in which it will approach, touch down on the deck and take off without stopping in a maneuver known as “touch-and-go,” according to Navy Capt. Jaime Engdahl, manager of the UCAS program. The tests will continue in June in preparation of landing the Northrop Grumman Corp.-made jet aboard a carrier “later this summer,” he said.

“This is an inflection point in naval aviation and it allows us to prove conclusively that large unmanned systems can work from the deck of aircraft carriers and it shows that we have a unique capability to develop future systems to increase the effectiveness and the range of the carrier battle group,” Engdahl said May 15 during a conference call.

The X-47B earlier this month made its first ground-based arrested landing, in which the tail of the plane captures a cable on the runway to quickly slow the aircraft as it lands. The Navy in coming weeks plans to conduct additional arrested landings on the ground, as well as the touch-down flights on the carrier.

Northrop, based in Falls Church, Va., has built two aircraft for the UCAS program, which has cost $1.4 billion over eight years. Each plane is about the size of an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet.

Engdahl praised yesterday’s take-off and flight of the aircraft, which he said “performed perfectly in all phases of flight.” He also warned that the upcoming tests are equally complex.

“The most technologically demanding and significant portion is actually touching down on a moving flight deck and then continuing to roll down the center line of the runway on the carrier while the aircraft and the carrier are pitching and rolling,” he said.

Northrop has made significant strides in developing the autonomous vehicle for use aboard aircraft carriers, according to Carl Johnson, a vice president and manager of the UCAS program at the company.

“As we found throughout the program, there are exceptions to every rule and you need to prepare for them,” he said during the call. “The start point of the flight and the end point of the flight move. That is a new development in terms of unmanned systems. The significance for us and the flight yesterday is that once launched, the system has to go find its route. It has to compensate itself for not going where it’s initially starting. That is a big problem to solve.”

The UCAS program is designed to demonstrate the technology and lay the groundwork for a larger effort to build the Navy’s armed, carrier-based drone fleet called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.

The service has said it plans to request proposals for a preliminary design review for the UCLASS program this month, followed by a similar request for technology development next month.

Northrop is expected to square off against other defense giants for the work, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Lockheed is pitching the Sea Ghost, Boeing the Phantom Ray and General Atomics the Sea Avenger.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_

    Let the free market decide. Though chances are GA will lose and it’ll be between Northrop and Boeing, especially since LM already has -22 and -35. Boeing’s delegates from SC, KS and WA will be deployed offensively.

    • MMyers

      Free market?

      • blight_

        Only welfare queens hate on the free market. /sarc


      Excellent point. Lockheed (or as you lot put it, Lockmart) has had a recent, spotty, record with delivery and money. This will be a fight between Boeing and NG. Personally, from the news I am seeing, though, NG has really taken strides.

    • Nadnerbus

      I dunno, at this point, LM seems to be pretty good at bending over the DoD and American taxpayer while over promising and under delivering. I say give NG a chance, seeing as how they have already done the leg work.

      I suppose most of the old Grumman is gone, but I do feel better about their name attached to anything naval aviation. I would think there is at least SOME institutional memory left there.

      • blight_

        Who knows? When N acquired G, the naval aviation market looked pretty grim. They closed out most of the NY facilities of Grumman, and moving engineers to the west coast isn’t cheap, especially in the ’90s when work dried up as part of the “peace dividend”. You only needed enough engineers and tooling to support the few Grumman aircraft still in inventory at the time.

      • Curt

        NG did all the work on the F-35C landing gear. Just saying.


        I highly doubt that Lock, uh, mart, will make this. For one thing, their F-22 and F-35 have had some serious cost overruns, as well as delays, that have cost the government billions. Also, though, LM is still trying to perfect the F-35. How can they possibly support this new UAV project AND keep up with the thousands of F-35 orders? And that is supposing that the F-35 is perfected in a week.

    • John Deere

      Free Market?

      Er… do you mean: put the contract out to tender and chose the cheapest offer?

      I can assure you this is not a good idea; “cheapest” does not mean “best”, in the field of advanced technology.

  • AdmAdama

    Cool. All it needs is a little red laser light, scanning left and right.


    Northrop, only praise, my military industrial complex company. Brings hope to the entire US military, air force, navy, the lot.

  • stephen russell

    Movie is Stealth from 2005 & darn close to movie drone in exterior.
    On DVD & Blu Ray

  • STemplar

    Really can’t wait for that RFP. I really want to see the details on payload including weight and bay dimensions, as well as range. Love the pic also.

    • blight_

      Something tells me the first models will be ground attack with capacity for two bombs, not unlike the F-117.

  • Mike

    I’m waiting for A I air to air combat !

  • joe

    EDI UCAV “Tin Man” confirms callsign.

  • Big-Dean

    BZ Navy and Northrup, maybe we can drop the F-35 Turkey II, oops ligtning something er rather

  • STemplar

    I’d say things are moving along quite well. I think I read somewhere the landing should be made relatively soon.


    How difficult would it be to alter the coding if the carrier had to make an unexpected turn after the X47B launched? Seems it might be an issue if the carrier isn’t where the X47 expects it to be in the pre-mission codes.

    • blight_

      There’s probably a homing signal used to lure the aircraft back to the carrier if the carrier is not in any number of pre-arranged sites. I suppose with frequency hopping you could ensure that it would be harder to pick up. Use GPS/INS to go to the general region the carrier is expected to be, then put out a low power homing signal. If the carrier moves, a more powerful signal may be required.

      Alternatively, use a DDG to put out the homing signal. Anyone who comes looking for the carrier gets a kick in the mouth from Standard missiles.

  • SFP

    Really can’t wait for that RFP. I really want to see the details on payload including weight and bay dimensions, as well as range. Love the pic also.

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