By Capt. Beau Duarte
Unmanned Carrier Aviation program manager
One year ago, Sailors watched an unmanned air vehicle take-off from a nuclear-powered carrier flight deck for the first time in naval aviation history.
May 14, 2013 was an extraordinary day for the Navy. The crew from USS George H.W. Bush launched the X-47B that morning off the coast of Virginia. The tailless, autonomous unmanned aircraft took to the skies, while the flight crew on deck celebrated this historic achievement.
Our Naval Air Forces Commander Vice Adm. David Buss called it “a watershed event” as he watched from the flight deck. He compared this event to aviation pioneer Eugene Ely’s first-ever landing on the deck of a ship in 1911.
In July, the UCAS-D team went back to the ship and took testing one step further. This time, not only did we launch an unmanned air vehicle, but we successfully landed the X-47B on the ship. This was an event many of us couldn’t have imagined that we would have the opportunity to witness during our naval career.
After joining the program in October and having the privilege of leading a team of highly-motivated, dedicated and talented individuals, I had the opportunity to embark aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) the following month. There was a tremendous amount of interest on the ship and the entire crew was excited to be part of the testing.
I felt that same excitement. In 2009, I served as the commanding officer of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River and was involved in some of the early test coordination with the X-47B. At the time, operating the UAS from an aircraft carrier was still just a concept. There was still a lot of work ahead of the team.
But just five years later, here I was on the flight deck watching not one, but two X-47B aircraft operating in more complex conditions than ever before. It was our most successful detachment to date. We completed five catapults and five arrested landings in winds of higher magnitude and differing directions.
We closed out 2013 with a total of eight catapult launches, 30 touch-and-goes and seven arrested landings while aboard CVN77 and CVN71.
This year we have routinely flown X-47B at NAS Patuxent River. Continuing to fly the X-47B in the Patuxent River air space will further exercise the research, test, development and evaluation (RDT&E) infrastructure with an unmanned air system. These tests are a build-up for the next carrier event this summer aboard CVN 71.
When we go back to the ship in August, we will accomplish a new set of firsts for the X-47B. We’ll test the new capabilities of the X-47B wing-fold and tailhook retract system, and will demonstrate compatibility with a carrier jet-blast deflector on the flight deck for the first time. We will also focus on perfecting flight deck operations and integrating the unmanned system with manned aircraft.
Over the next year, we will continue X-47B flight operations to mature technologies for the future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system and refine the concept of operations to demonstrate the integration of unmanned carrier-based aircraft within the carrier environment.
It is extremely rewarding to see how far we have come with the X-47B in just a few short years. I look forward to the next chapter of unmanned carrier aviation and providing our warfighter with new capabilities that will extend the reach of our powerful aircraft carriers.