In what may be a Kitty Hawk moment for an unmanned aircraft, an experimental drone made a 29-minute flight late Friday, lacking not only an onboard pilot, but one on the ground, flying the vehicle remotely.
"Such events are history in the making," said Janis Pamiljans, vice president and program manager for the X-47B program at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, which built the plane for the U.S. Navy. "We surpassed what we wanted to achieve with the flight."
The bat-winged, tail-less X-47B, one of two demonstrators built by Northrop Grumman, flew as high as 5,000 feet during its debut and touched down right on target.
"The team is still analyzing the data, but I will tell you the air vehicle performance was rock solid. It did exactly what was expected. The flight path was as planned, and preliminary feedback from the engineers was that it matched the model aerodynamics performance and guidance and control very well. That is a testament to the teams' hard work over the last few years and their expertise in this realm," program manager Jaime Engdahl told reporters during a call-in conference for the press.
The X-47B's flawless flight and landing back at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert demonstrated the accuracy of computer models being developed to design software for fully automated, unmanned aircraft. The trial run bolstered confidence that follow-on test flights of the X-47B aboard an aircraft carrier will be equally successful, program managers said.
Flight rates are expected to be as high as once per week from Edwards Air Force Base as the plane's capabilities are expanded. Air Vehicle 1, or AV-1, which flew Friday, will then be transferred to the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., and eventually loaded onto an aircraft carrier for additional testing Sistership AV-2 is due to be transferred to Edwards AFB next month for taxi tests and engine runs, and is expected to make its first flight this summer.
The X-47B will be the first unmanned jet aircraft to take off and land aboard an aircraft carrier. With a 62-foot wingspan and length of 38 feet, the X-47B is about 87 percent the size of the F/A-18C aircraft currently operating aboard Navy aircraft carriers.
"It's the manned-to-unmanned operation on the carrier that the big paradigm shift," Engdahl said.
Now a captain in the U.S. Navy, Engdahl says his inspiration for joining the service came in part from the Vietnam-era pilots who said that landing on the carriers was the most difficult part of their missions.
"First flight of a Navy unmanned X-plane - that's a huge deal, but it's just one of the many firsts to come out of this program," Engdahl said.
Photos: Northrop Grumman