Drone Aborts Fourth Carrier Landing Attempt


A type of experimental U.S. Navy drone that became the first unmanned jet to land aboard a moving aircraft carrier failed in a fourth and final attempt to accomplish the feat.

The X-47B made by Northrop Grumman Corp. yesterday experienced unspecified technical issues while in flight and officials decided to abort the mission before the aircraft made it to the ship, according to an article by Christopher Cavas, a reporter for Defense News who broke the story, citing unnamed sources within the service.

Navy officials later confirmed to Military.com that the plane — which has the call sign “Salty Dog 501” and was not the same one that performed last week’s landings — was instructed to forgo the landing aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean.

“During the flight, the aircraft experienced a minor test instrumentation issue” and returned to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where it landed safely, Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mailed statement. “There were no additional opportunities for testing,” as the ship returned to port today, she said.

The other X-47B, known as “Salty Dog 502,” on July 10 completed two landings and takeoffs aboard the carrier about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., in what officials heralded as the future of naval aviation. A third touchdown planned for that day was aborted after one of the aircraft’s navigational computers failed.

The two aircraft are highly autonomous. The computer-controlled unmanned systems take off, fly pre-programmed routes and land in response to mouse clicks from a mission operator, according to Northrop.

The shipboard exercises are the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.

“The X-47B aircraft and the entire carrier system passed with flying colors,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, who manages the program for the Navy, said in the statement.

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.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus after the drone’s successful carrier landings penned an op-ed in which he argued that the demonstration proved how the nuclear-powered fleet will remain relevant for decades to come.

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.
  • JohnB

    Is this autonomous or remote control ?

  • Musson

    It took four attempts but the AI brain finally came to it’s senses -

  • Ron

    Need some more fine tweaking!

  • BlackOwl18E

    Drone revolution = totally over played.

    Manned tactical aviation = still completely relevant for the future.

    Is it any coincidence that 2019 is also the same date that the F-35C was supposed to reach IOC? That’s when he wants the UCLASS drones? Sounds suspicious to me…

    • Blue

      Never miss an opportunity to bash the F-35, do you?

      Give up. The F-35 program isn’t going to be canceled. F-35s WILL be part of the US military for decades to come.

      • stpaulchuck

        yep, they’ll make good target practice for the chicoms

      • MNButler

        Yeap, Just like the F-111.

      • BlackOwl18E

        I was literally on the verge of giving up, but then I went back to some old Defensetech articles and I saw that someone had gone back and deleted my old posts, possibly an administrator. The fact that they went back to get rid of them has not only rekindled my desire to fight the F-35 again, but it also showed me that this program is still sensitive to someone at least. Also, from what I gather the F-22 program was once just as strong as this was, but it died eventually when senators and congressmen came together and realized that we couldn’t afford it. Also, keep in mind that I don’t much care at all for the F-35A or the F-35B. The USAF and the USMC can have those two for all I care. What I really want cancelled is just the F-35C. It’s not better for the needs of the Navy than an upgraded Super Hornet with advanced anti-radar missiles and it costs nearly three times as much. The cost to fix the problems with the F-35C are also ridiculously high. I think the F-35C is the most vulnerable and it still has a chance of getting killed even if the F-35 program as a whole is strongly politically protected.

  • majr0d

    “The shipboard exercises are the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.”

    So each of the two X47B’s have $700mil sunk into them and so far are 50% on landing on a carrier.

    I’m a fan of drones. We need to continue development but those pointing to this as evidence of the relevancy of the CSG or radical progress are drinking the snake oil. We need carriers and drones but the face of naval aviation warfare hasn’t dramatically changed nor will it for the near future.


    “Minor” problems. I like Northrop Grumman, and the X-47B, but if a problem is minor, and happens during wartime, how can you abort the landing? If its minor, than should it not effect landing?

  • hibeam

    Just wait until they unionize. They will land when they damn well please.

  • ms6

    Keep our current stock of drones for close ground support and scrap the rest of this automated ship borne nonsense.

  • hibeam

    ms6 permission to come aboard sir. Your left frontal lobe seems to be taking on water.

  • Beef Supreme

    Top Gun 2: A toy robot becomes a carrier drone.

  • SFC Pappy
  • SFC Pappy
  • SFC Pappy
  • SFC Pappy

    A UAV is a needed piece of equipment in the Navy. Surveillance? OK. Refueling? OK. Transporting supplies? OK.

    I’ve been flown on and off of a carrier. Piloted by a human being on said aircraft. I trusted them to do their job.

    But some black shoe in Washington will get the bright idea of using them as COD’s for transportation of people onto and off of a carrier. No fracking way will I let a desk jockey sitting on ship fly me onto an aircraft carrier. Either its flown by a pilot IN the aircraft with as much to lose as I do or I’ll wait on the pier.

    What are these UAV pilots (snort) going to do in high seas or bad weather?? Can’t fly seat of your pants from an office chair. A carrier certified pilot is irreplaceable when it comes to pucker factor flying. These electronic landing aids don’t do everything to make successful fowl weather or heavy seas flying.

    I see a great future for the flight deck fire brigade in aircraft crash firefighting.

    Humans are priceless. But carrier pilots don’t crash that often. But at how many million each for a UAV can these RC pilots crash before the Navy says enough?

    • blight_

      We can’t even replace the COD aircraft that we have!

      That said, the eventual goal of UAVs in my mind is to have a naval aviator in a room on the CV guide the aircraft in for the landing. Aircraft autopilots on INS/GPS to within radio range of a relay aircraft and is landed by teleoperation from the relay or the carrier itself.

      That said, a transport ferrying replacement pilots will have the manpower aboard to fly if required. If the weight of teleoperation gear can be reduced enough, it may be possible to have aircraft that can be manned or unmanned; and thus use unmanned COD aircraft from a base to move aircraft engines and mail and have your pilots move other, more interesting things. This assumes that availability of pilots for COD aircraft is the bottleneck, and not aircraft availability.

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