The Northrop Grumman-built X-47B has passed the latest checkpoint on its flight path towards becoming the first carrier-based, tailless, fighter-sized, unmanned aircraft in the U.S. Navy’s arsenal with the successful conclusion of the first major phase of flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) in California.

The airworthiness test phase, which kicked off with the maiden flight on February 4, 2011, saw two X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrators conduct 23 flights in which the aircraft reached altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet and demonstrated multiple maneuvers required for carrier operations. These included the first flight in cruise mode, extending and retracting a tail hook, completing an aviation-first autonomous “touch-and-go” landing, and landings at a high sink rate and in heavy weight configuration.

Northrop Grumman says the flight tests proved the aircraft’s ability to perform properly at all speeds, weights and altitudes associated with the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program.

"The X-47B flight test program at Edwards will be remembered as a very successful collaboration among the Navy, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center," said Carl Johnson, vice president and Navy UCAS Enterprise program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "The X-47B flight test program at Edwards demonstrated convincingly the maturity, durability and performance of this revolutionary new unmanned system.”

Following the completion of the airworthiness flight tests at EAFB on May 15, the second X-47B has been transported cross-country to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. It joins the first X-47B that was moved there in December 2011 and is currently undergoing electromagnetic interference testing to ensure it is compatible with the electromagnetic signal environment experienced on an aircraft carrier.

Northrop Grumman is currently finalizing the software required for the carrier suitability testing of the aircraft that will begin in the coming months. This will include catapult launches, arrested landings and wireless remote deck handling of the aircraft.

Tests planned for 2013 will involve the demonstration of launch, recovery, bolter and wave-off performance, while autonomous air refueling demonstrations are planned for 2014.

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