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Phantom Ray hitches ride on 747

Boeing's futuristic UAV rides piggyback on a NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as it gets ready to make its own first flight in early 2011.

Phantom Ray on 747
The Phantom Ray in the saddle atop a 747 for a test flight.

The Phantom Ray UAV got some air time today, with a little help from a jumbo jet.

Boeing's futuristic unmanned aerial vehicle took a 50-minute flight today riding piggyback on a NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified 747 designed to ferry space shuttles from one terrestrial site to another. The aerospace giant had said earlier in the year that the Phantom Ray was on track to make its first flight, but this may not be exactly what it had in mind.

The first flight of the Phantom Ray, which is designed to fly autonomously, is now scheduled for "early 2011," Boeing said today. The flight test program is expected to last about six months.

Looking rather like a mosquito holding on for dear life to a generously proportioned model aircraft, the Phantom Ray rode the 747 out of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis in preparation for being transported to the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. Boeing's Phantom Works operation had been working on the UAV at the company's St. Louis facility.

This is the first time that an aircraft other than the space shuttle has flown on the SCA, according to Boeing.

At Dryden, the 36-foot-long Phantom Ray will undergo ground tests and high-speed taxi tests. It has already undergone low-speed taxi tests at Lambert field. "It communicated with the ground control station, received its orders and made its way down the runway multiple times, allowing us to assess its performance and monitor the advanced systems on board," Boeing said in a statement in mid-November.

Eventually the Phantom Ray could perform military missions ranging from surveillance and reconnaissance to strikes on enemy targets.