PALMDALE, Calif. — The Navy’s plan for its future carrier air wing took a leap into autonomous flight on Tuesday with the unveiling here of a stealthy, bat wing-like unmanned jet.
Dubbed Air Vehicle 1, the X-47B aircraft is the first of what will be two demonstration aircraft built by Northrop Grumman Corp. It was designed to test the idea of an autonomous airplane that would launch and recover on Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and conduct strike and other missions — without the hands-on controls of an onboard pilot.
Hundreds of workers joined military and company officials in a hangar at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale site Tuesday afternoon for the official “unveiling” ceremony, where guests got a close-up look at an aircraft — the Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration, or UCAS-D — that only two months ago wasn’t yet assembled. The X-47B’s bat wing shape takes a page from the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber, which Northrop Grumman designed and built, then in secret, at this desert location north of Los Angeles.
“This will be the airplane we’ll be flying next year,” Scott Winship, UCAS program manager and Northrop Grumman vice president, told reporters before the ceremony.
Engineers will put the aircraft through a series of proof tests here and at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and will conduct its first flight before the aircraft heads east to Patuxent River, Md., in November 2009 for a year of additional testing and the official “roll out” ceremony. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Gene Fraser, deputy vice president for Northrop Grumman’s Integrated Systems-Western Region.
That includes the important shipboard trials, which will test the aircraft in the harsher, less forgiving and busy environment of a carrier in the open ocean. Program officials plan to conduct sea trials and the first flight aboard an aircraft carrier in November 2011, an event set to mark the 100th anniversary of naval aviation. The aircraft carrier Truman will likely get the nod as the first to host and operate the aircraft at sea, said Capt. Martin Deppe, the Navy’s UCAS program manager.
Winship said the advent of the aircraft “signals a sea change in military aviation.”
The carrier-based aircraft will provide commanders with an airplane that can be launched farther at sea, and without a pilot, the aircraft can fly distant missions and loiter over a target or combat zone much longer than what a human pilot and aircrew can safely do.
“This airplane is flying itself,” Deppe noted.
Officials said the X-47B was designed for autonomous aerial refueling by both naval tankers, which use the probe and drogue system, and Air Force tankers, which refuel with a boom and receptacle.