Drone Glitch Nixed Last Carrier Landing: Navy


The experimental U.S. Navy drone that became the first unmanned jet to land aboard a moving aircraft carrier was told to abort the third and final attempt after one of its navigational computers failed, officials said.

The bat-winged aircraft, known as the X-47B and made by Northrop Grumman Corp., completed two touchdowns and takeoffs yesterday aboard the USS George H.W. Bush about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., in what officials heralded as the future of naval aviation.

On the third approach, the drone reported that one of its three navigational computers failed, so the human operator instructed the craft to fly to a runway at Wallops Island, Va., according to Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the service’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.

“On every test, we have some type of anomalous behavior,” Winter said today during a conference call with reporters. “X-47B did everything it was designed to do.”

The incident occurred about two minutes prior to the last planned landing as the aircraft approached the ship, according to Capt. Jaime Engdahl, who manages the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, program.

“We saw an issue with one of the precision navigation computers and decided that we had done enough for the day and then flew the aircraft back,” Engdahl said during the call.

“Landing aboard an aircraft carrier is extremely demanding,” he added. “The accuracy, the integrity, the reliability that you need is critical to the safety of the aircraft and the fact that we’re landing on a ship in close proximity to flight deck personnel and other aircraft.”

Officials are reviewing the data to determine what happened to the navigational computer, according to Carl Johnson, a vice president at Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop who manages the program for the company.

“It’s probably a minor issue that when we reset the computers, everything will be up and running and you’ll have a fully functioning aircraft,” he said during the call.

The prototype that flew the mission, which has the call sign “Salty Dog 502,” is one of two Northrop built for the Navy. The aircraft will return to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., after final testing aboard the ship is completed on Monday, Winter said. They will eventually be retired to a museum.

The development program has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years, according to the Navy.

The effort was designed to demonstrate the technology’s potential and pave the way for a larger program, called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, to build an armed, carrier-based drone fleet.

The Navy wants to add operational drones to air wings in 2019 to extend the range of carrier groups. Unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for more than a day — far longer than manned planes. The systems will be initially used for surveillance and refueling missions, and eventually for strike operations, officials said.

The Navy plans to issue a draft request for proposals for the first phase of the UCLASS program in August, followed by a formal request to start the competition next year, Winter said. The service would pick a single winner by the end of 2014, he said.

Northrop Grumman 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 Martin 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 Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Lance

    So after all the press and hype. This drone has still yet to be perfected.

  • Brian Black

    Considering the difference that this programme can make to the USN’s strike capability, it is remarkably cheap.

  • Tony C.

    Considering the negative G’s imparted on the drones systems in the previous 2 landings, it only had one failure. The US Navy doesn’t really let the public know that the operational aircraft always have carrier landing induced system failures. The fact that the drone flew to a bingo field indicates that it could have made the carrier landing, but was diverted for safety. The pilots always have a big pucker factor with carrier landings and the drone performed it perfectly. The software is now mature enough to take the next step towards an operational drone.

    • tmb2

      For all we know the plane could have still landed with that error (1 of 3 navigation computers failed), but they didn’t risk it. They even got an unplanned (and successful) test of the emergency systems. It looks like they were able to hand the plane off to an operator without any major bumps which is also critical. I wonder if they plan on any operator-guided landings in the future?

  • hibeam

    The software will only get better and better over time. Every drone is top gun all day every day Go Navy!

  • hunter76

    Sometime in the future, drones will eat F-35s out of the sky. Meanwhile F35s gobble potential drone R&D dollars.

    • blight_

      Depends on if drones can detect F-35 and hit it with missiles that can detect the target.


      Uhm. This X-47B and the F-35 are on the same side.

  • blight_


    UAV lands flawlessly.

    UAV lands flawlessly.

    Computer thinks there may be a problem, operator waves it off to land instead of risking a kaboom on the flight deck.


    Is there a problem?

    Compare to Wright Brothers, and this is after *numerous* glider experiments.

    Wilbur: 3s flight, crash
    Orville: 120 ft, 12s flight
    W:175 ft
    O:200 ft
    W: 852 ft, land with damage

    //damaged again by heavy gust


      Yeah, but to be fair, they had no funding from the government.

      • EW3

        The government funded effort led by Langley faired far worse then the Wrights.

  • Old commander

    Anyone who has seen thousands of carrier landings in day & night, foul and fair, would realize this is quite a feat! This plane has fabulous potential, be patient.

  • BlackOwl18E

    EDI is acting up. We need to put him on lock down so he doesn’t carry out Operation: Caviar Sweep.

  • hibeam

    The CiC campaigned in all 57 states. Can we call it the X-57B to honor that achievment?

  • fanboy

    X-47b: 2.5
    F-35: 0

  • spurlockda

    I wonder if the software was MS Windows. After booting up two times, you have to press Cntl/Alt/Delete to get the computers running again.

    Just teasing. This is an outstanding accomplishment and it will be really intriguing to watch develop.

  • Big-Dean

    Let’s all pray that they don’t award the program to Lockhead-they will surely screw it up, make it cost $6 Billion a piece and it’ll take 20 years

  • Ed Greene

    Did the drone request a fly by of the tower? If so you know Maverick was to blame.

  • Jolly Roger

    I can buy a $200-$400 unmanned plane, helicopter, concept aerials that do the same thing. imagine the savings to tax payers. If the military just goes to hobby shops. lightweight, mobile, unmanned, cheaper by billions (plural). &, they are available now. no contracts, wasted billions. take a risk and KISS (KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID).
    You see how many millions are wasted on uniform decisions? Tired of someone responsible @ the topm, taking credit for innovations that cost millions upon millions, a simple decision on how to dress for a certain terrain. So, all services wear that same uniform for that particular terrain. notice the key words being ALL Services. Guess what I’m providing this decision, free of charge, it makes sense, practical, common sense, operational usage. & I offer it free of charge.
    The hobby shop did not have to reinvent the wheel. plans/aircraft fly by computers(auto pilot) themselves, imagine that, the Common sense factor.