"Watershed event" sees X-47B UCAS launched by catapult from aircraft carrier

Naval Air Forces commander calls X-47B catapult launch a pivotal milestone in naval aviation

The Navy today launched an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator (UCAS-D) from an aircraft carrier at sea, the system's first at-sea catapult launch. The aircraft flew from USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) off the coast of Virginia and landed safely at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. about an hour later.

“Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex warfighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” said VADM David Buss, commander, Naval Air Forces, in a press statement released by the Naval Air Systems Command, who called the launch a “watershed event.”

The unmanned aircraft launched from the deck of George H.W. Bush at 11:18 a.m. It executed several planned low approaches to the carrier and safely transited across the Chesapeake Bay to land at NAS Pax River after a 65-minute flight.

Completing another important first for the UCAS-D program, the team demonstrated the ability to precisely navigate the X-47B within the controlled airspace around an aircraft carrier at sea and seamlessly pass control of the air vehicle from a mission operator aboard the carrier to one located in the mission test control center at NAS Pax River for landing.

“The flight today demonstrated that the X-47B is capable of operation from a carrier, hand-off from one mission control station to another, flight through the national airspace, and recovery at another location without degradation in safety or precision,” said Matt Funk, lead test engineer for the Navy UCAS program, in the press statement.

Prior to the catapult launch on Tuesday, the UCAS test team also conducted deck-handling and ship-integration testing to demonstrate the capability to safely operate the X-47B in the dynamic environment of an aircraft carrier flight deck.

Over the next few weeks, the X-47B aircraft will fly approaches to the ship multiple times and eventually land on the pitching flight deck, said Navy UCAS Program Manager Capt. Jaime Engdahl, in the statement.

The UCAS team will conduct additional shore-based testing with the X-47B at NAS Patuxent River in the coming months before its final carrier-based arrested landing demonstration later this summer.

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