Drone Aborts Fourth Carrier Landing Attempt


A type of experimental U.S. Navy drone that became the first unmanned jet to land aboard a moving aircraft carrier failed in a fourth and final attempt to accomplish the feat.

The X-47B made by Northrop Grumman Corp. yesterday experienced unspecified technical issues while in flight and officials decided to abort the mission before the aircraft made it to the ship, according to an article by Christopher Cavas, a reporter for Defense News who broke the story, citing unnamed sources within the service.

Navy officials later confirmed to Military.com that the plane -- which has the call sign "Salty Dog 501" and was not the same one that performed last week's landings -- was instructed to forgo the landing aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean.

"During the flight, the aircraft experienced a minor test instrumentation issue" and returned to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where it landed safely, Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mailed statement. "There were no additional opportunities for testing," as the ship returned to port today, she said.

The other X-47B, known as "Salty Dog 502," on July 10 completed two landings and takeoffs aboard the carrier about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., in what officials heralded as the future of naval aviation. A third touchdown planned for that day was aborted after one of the aircraft’s navigational computers failed.

The two aircraft are highly autonomous. The computer-controlled unmanned systems take off, fly pre-programmed routes and land in response to mouse clicks from a mission operator, according to Northrop.

The shipboard exercises are the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.

"The X-47B aircraft and the entire carrier system passed with flying colors," Capt. Jaime Engdahl, who manages the program for the Navy, said in the statement.

The effort was designed to demonstrate the technology’s potential and pave the way for a larger program, called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, to build an armed, carrier-based drone fleet.

The Navy wants to add operational drones to air wings in 2019 to extend the range of carrier groups. Unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for more than a day — far longer than manned planes. The systems will be initially used for surveillance and refueling missions, and eventually for strike operations, officials said.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus after the drone's successful carrier landings penned an op-ed in which he argued that the demonstration proved how the nuclear-powered fleet will remain relevant for decades to come.

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