Navy to Test Electromagnetic Catapult on Carrier

EMALSThe Navy is preparing to launch the first ship-board tests of a new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System designed to replace steam catapults and propel fighter jets and other aircraft off the deck of an aircraft carrier and into the sky over the ocean, service officials said.

The EMALS system, which uses an electromagnetic field to propel aircraft instead of the currently used steam catapult, is slated for the new Ford-class aircraft carriers. The first EMALS system has been under construction for several years aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), the first in class of the new carriers expected to deliver to the Navy in 2016, Navy officials said.

This summer, the Navy will start incremental testing on board the USS Ford wherein “dead loads” placed on weighted sleds are catapulted by the EMALS system into the river, said Capt. Jim Donnelly, program manager for aircraft launch and recovery equipment.

“As things get connected they will increase the number of tests. The first aircraft launch will be after the ship gets to sea,” Donnelly said.

Ship integration and testing for the EMALS technology will mark a substantial milestone in a program which, until now, has largely been conducting land-based flight tests at a Navy facility in Lakehurst, N.J.

“We’ve conducted 452 aircraft launches and just finished up our second phase of aircraft compatibility testing,” Donnelly explained.

The ground-based EMALS catapult tests have launched EA-18G Growlers, F/A-18 Super Hornets, C-2 Greyhound planes and E2D Advanced Hawkeyes, among others. In fact, EMALS even launched an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lakehurst, Donnelly added. The USS Ford has been under construction in recent years at Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls.

Equipment for the EMALS system has been in development on board the ship for several years, Navy officials said. General Atomics was awarded a $573 million deal from the Navy in 2009 for EMALS development.

“We’ve been making component deliveries to the ship in Newport News since 2011. It started early because for EMALS, some of the equipment such as the motor-generators are lower in the ship so they had to be part of the super-lift early on,” Donnelly added.  “At this point we’re delivering components to be installed in the catapult trough which is up on the flight deck.”

Metal decking is slated to be placed over the trough on the flight deck. Donnelly said cabling and linear induction motor sections are still being installed on board the USS Ford. The linear motors are engineered to help create a sequentially activated rolling magnetic field or wave able to thrust or propel aircraft forward, Donnelly explained.

“It is the same type of technology that you see in a rollercoaster except this one is designed for critical launch reliability. It has to work every time you press the launch button. You are getting an electromagnetic field by turning on linear motor sequentially so we don’t energize the whole field in one shot,” he explained.

The electromagnetic field acts on a large 22-foot long aluminum plate, he added. The aluminum plate runs in between stationary sections of 12-foot long linear motors. Electricity runs through the two sides of the motors, creating an electromagnetic wave, Donnelly explained.

“The aircraft motors are kicked in at the beginning. There’s a hydraulic piston that pushes a shuttle forward. The shuttle is what connects to the aircraft launch bar,” Donnelly said.

The EMALS system is engineered to be both steady and tailorable, meaning it can adjust to different aircraft weights and configurations, Donnelly said.  For example, EMALS is configured such that it could launch a lighter weight aircraft, such as an unmanned aircraft system, he added.

This is particularly useful because the amount of thrust needed to launch an aircraft depends upon a range of interwoven factors to include size, shape and weight of the aircraft, wind speed on the carrier deck and the speed of the aircraft carrier in the water, Donnelly explained.

“EMALS better supports the air wing now and in the future. As you may know we’ve changed the make-up of the carrier wing over the years. We’re getting to an air wing that requires higher energy launches and EMALS is much more capable when it comes to higher launch energy requirements,” Donnelly said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Thought they tried this on the USS Ford and it isn’t working well in the salt air and high pitch of the Atlantic Ocean.

    • Mambo

      It hasn’t even been put to sea yet. A little early for the anti-US equipment fanboys to be making claims of failure.

      • Bob

        Excellent observation, Mambo. The same anti-US equipment fanboys were criticizing Reagan’s Star Wars Initiatives back in the eighties. Today, thanks to Reagan’s visions, we have ultramodern satellites, aircraft, and warships armed with laser weapons that can take down enemy objects with pinpoint precision.

  • tmb2

    Am I the only one not seeing a single paragraph indent in this article?

  • DLG

    Please reformat & resubmit – text has no paragraph breaks and is impossible to read.

  • Anyone want to venture a guess on how susceptible this system is to battle Damage ?

  • Virgil Cuttaway

    The Chinese are working on similar technology. They’ve either stole the technology or working on it concurrently with US efforts. I bet they stole the tech.

  • blight_

    “As you may know we’ve changed the make-up of the carrier wing over the years. We’re getting to an air wing that requires higher energy launches”

    Translation: Our aircraft are getting heavier.

  • anthony

    Stay on the positive side it works!

  • Dfens

    Wow, this is so high tech. Maybe if they’d taken a cue from the RC glider industry we’d have had electric launch decades ago: Of course, that would defeat the real purpose of this device which is to get plenty of money in the hands of people who deserve it so very little.

  • hibeam

    Very cool. You also end up with a very big power hammer suitable for your close in beam weapons.

  • Barry

    This technology should be used for civilian aviation. Would help save a lot of jet-a, lower airport pollution, increase range, lower costs, etc. Possibly also for space launch.

  • Mitch S.

    That launcher you linked to is basically a winch operated by an electric motor.
    A different concept.

    This (EMALS) tech really isn’t new. As the article pointed out it’s been used on rollercoasters for decades also it’s been used on “MagLev” trains.
    The challenge is the detailed engineering to make a system that performs reliably on a ship.
    So I doubt there are any big secrets for the Chinese to steal, I figure they can get a system running for demonstrations but it’ll take them a while to get it working well for regular shipboard launches.

    BTW, speaking of winches and rollercoasters, I found it interesting that the designers of the “KingdaKa” giant coaster considered a magnetic launch system (already used on similar coasters) but ended up with a winch type system driven by hydraulic motors (it stores pressurized fluid in accumulators between launches).
    There is more than one way to give something the boot.

  • Demon76

    Surprising that the large magnetic field generated doesn’t interfere with the aircraft’s electronics. Hope the pilot’s credit card magnetic strip doesn’t get wiped out.

    • Dfens

      If they’d used an electric motor to launch these airplanes instead of this needlessly expensive and complex linear electromagnet system they could bury the motor below decks where the magnetic field would be easy to shield. A usual, this system only makes sense for the defense contractor’s bottom line. They could have built a better system for less money, but all the cost incentives were in place to build the most complicated system for the highest price.

  • spurlockda

    Having spent 10 yrs onboard carriers, the catapult troughs routinely get flooded with sea water, jet fuel and hydraulic fluids, AFFF and etc.. I worry that the corrosion in all of those cables and connectors!

    • Mitch S.

      I was thinking that is/was probably one of the toughest challenges.
      Being this was developed with the Navy (not just for it) the rigors of the shipboard environment should not have been underestimated.
      Hopefully it’s a modular setup with good self-diagnostic capability.

      Re above comments on battle damage, I don’t see that as a major issue.
      Drop a bomb through a steam cat and I doubt it’ll be back in use for quite a while.
      Carriers have more than one cat, there is redundancy.
      The concern is having the cats operating reliably during a sustained campaign when planes are being launched at a rapid pace over days.

    • Bernard

      Cables and connectors are nothing new to modern warships. The Navy already has tons of electronics on their ships that have been in service for decades.

  • TonyC.

    The reliability of this equipment in the real world is yet to be proven. The stresses on the shuttle assembly will be the key. The old steam catapults were more or less immune to salt air and water. There is going to be alot of tikering until they get it right.

  • Chris

    I am sure it will be “hardened” against EMP…… But hopefully all variables were examined, costs versus benefits over steam, reliability, maintenance, and service life… BTW, since China is considering the same system, are we buying theirs….LOL

    • DLB

      Probably should… It would cost a tenth of what we can make it for.

  • CaptainDoc

    When a carrier is at sea for an extended time heat build up, all over the ship, pumps fail, electrical systems fail, electronics fail, hydraulics fail and lots of fires occur in electrical panels but nothing that can’t be repaired quickly. If this system is to be tested it would be a better test to use it under extended at sea period of more than 60 days. This will not be done. I have been on carriers on extended periods at sea serving as a damage control man, you know the ones on the nucleus fire party that puts fires out. and things break from that kind of usage. This magnetic system is going to generate heat and there will be failures so test the launch system in real atmospheres of heavy use. The loss of one bird will be a serious hit on the ships complement and they would shut the systems down while investigating is underway. This makes it hard for the carrier to complete their missions if the cats are out.

  • Tomato Juice

    What happens when there is an EMP attack near the carrier? I wonder if there is anything in place incase that happens.

  • swjdsmith

    The comment: “We’re getting to an air wing that requires higher energy launches and EMALS is much more capable when it comes to higher launch energy requirements,” really makes no sense. The carriers have essentially the E-2’s and various versions of the F/A-18. Weight wise these aircraft do not measure up to the aircraft of the 60’s-80’s. That is the A-3, A-6, F-4, F-14, and EA-6B. The laws of physics state that the greater the mass the more energy it takes to move the object. The F/A-18E/F/G certainly does not weigh more than these older aircraft. So how can the air wing of today require higher energy launches?

    • mrlee

      Well, they did land a C-130 on a carrier back in the 60s.

  • Richard

    I was the team leader for the contractor who built this prototype in conjunction with General Atomics. In my 40 years it is definitely one of my most memorable projects. Projects like this make me proud to be an American while doing my part for the US Military branches.

  • Richard

    In addition this doubles the number launches before performing an airframe inspection from 2,500 to 5,000. And it is much easier on the pilots as well.

  • Jkoper

    Garrett/AiResearch built a linear induction motor powered rail test vehicle for the DOT in 1971. It set a new speed record for steel wheel on rail of 256 mph in the early ’70s. The testing was done at the test center in Pueblo, CO.

  • frenchie

    I find it funny about all the comments on this post. Many issues are easily fixed or address. As for battle damage just depends on how it is damage just like a steam catapult. But something says it will be easier to fix. Most roller costers being built now use this technology. Lower maintenance lower failure rate not as dangerous to work on. One thing this system does provide is longer lasting airframes. Steam catapults go full force from the beginning then need massive water brakes. This system can give a much smoother acceleration amd don’t need water brakes as the motor it self is the brakes.

  • Doug

    I like the idea of new tech like this, but one thing I wonder about, will this not
    generate a small EMP that could be tracked ?

    • Mike

      Better question is what if the ship is attacked by EMP! Do we have a carrier that cannot launch?