An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator flies over the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. On May 14, 2013, one of the U.S. Navy's two X-47B aircraft did what no unmanned aircraft has ever done before -- made a catapult launch from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
After taking off from the Bush, the Navy said, the X-47B made several planned low approaches to the carrier (under the control of an operator aboard the ship) off the coast of Virginia and then flew across Chesapeake Bay to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., after an approximately 65-minute flight.
But the X-47B wasn't done carving out notches in naval history. Two months later, on July 10, 2013, it made its first arrested landing, no easy feat, also on the Bush -- that is, like piloted planes that land on a carrier, it used a hook on the underside of its fuselage to catch a cable stretched across the flight deck.
In the slideshow that follows, we'll take you through some of the steps that got the X-47B to its historic accomplishments in the spring and summer of 2013.
Editors' note: This slideshow was first published on December 1, 2012. It was updated later in December with photos of the X-47B on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman at sea, and then again on May 14, 2013, with photos from the X-47B's flight from the USS George H.W. Bush. It was subsequently updated on July 11, 2013, with details of its arrested landings on the carrier.
Photo by: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Alan Radecki
/ Caption by:Jon Skillings
Before it got to the carrier test, the experimental X-47B had to prove itself in a trial run from dry land at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland -- its first-ever catapult launch, period.
The launch on November 29 was a success, according to the Navy and Northrop Grumman, the builder of the unmanned aircraft. "This test, in addition to the extensive modeling and simulation done prior to today, gives us great confidence in the X-47B's ability to operate on the flight deck," said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy UCAS program manager.
The X-47B during remote-control tests that took place earlier in November. The deck operator (left) uses the Control Display Unit to move the aircraft into the proper position, working in conjunction with a flight deck director -- whose hand signals will be for the benefit of everyone else in the carrier's flight operations.
Here's a closer look at the X-47B Control Display Unit in action. "Instead of towing the aircraft out to the flight line, we can now start the X-47B outside its hangar, then use the CDU to taxi it out to the runway, or into a catapult for launch," Daryl Martis, Northrop Grumman's UCAS-D test director, said in a statement.
Sea trials in December 2012 were a success, according to the Navy and Northrop Grumman. "We proved that the X-47B air system is mature and can perform flawlessly in the most hostile electromagnetic environment on earth, a Nimitz class Navy aircraft carrier," said Mike Mackey, UCAS-D program director for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, in a statement on December 19.
On July 10, 2013, the X-47B had another big moment -- it made two arrested landings on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush after having made a 35-minute flight from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. After each landing, the aircraft followed up with a new catapult launch. It would have made a third landing, but on that approach, the Navy said, the X-47B aircraft "self-detected a navigation computer anomaly" and headed to a designated alternative landing site on land at Wallops Island Airfield in Virginia.
Photo by: U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Kevin J. Steinberg
/ Caption by:Jon Skillings