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It worked so smoothly, it was hard to tell it was so ... well, hard.
The Northrop Grumman X-47B, an aircraft designed to prove that unmanned jets could operate from aircraft carriers, completed its primary mission Wednesday when it successfully landed on board a carrier at sea.
"You saw the future today," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said after the landing — or "trap" — which took place along the Atlantic seaboard about a hundred miles off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula. "This is the first of the next generation of naval aircraft."
"The biggest piece of news is that there was no news," he declared. "On the whole, you saw sailors do what sailors do on a carrier at sea."
Those, at least, were reactions after the first two landings. A planned third landing, however, was waved off after a technical problem was discovered, perhaps emphasizing the special nature of the event.
The X-47B, which had taken off from the Navy's air test center at Patuxent River, Md., flew to the Bush flanked by a pair of Super Hornet chase planes. After one programmed pass over the ship, the aircraft circled around in the traditional race track carrier approach pattern — although seemingly a bit wider than usual — then came straight in to catch the carrier's No. 3 wire, just as engineers had planned.
Other than the absence of a cockpit, pilots and aircrew, it all seemed rather routine, but the engineering to get to this point was anything but.
"What you saw today was a miraculous, technological feat," Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, told a group of reporters flown out to the Bush. "It was astounding."
After landing, the aircraft was positioned on a catapult, launched and came around again to repeat the feat. It was a more extensive routine than when the little tailless plane — similar to a baby B-2 stealth bomber but about the size of an F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter — was launched for the first time at sea on May 14.
The second landing was also successful, if just a tad off the optimum — catching the No. 2, or middle wire.
After another launch, engineers from the Naval Air Systems Command planned a third landing, but it was not to be.
"On the third approach to Bush, the X-47B aircraft self-detected a navigation computer anomaly that required the air vehicle to transit to the assigned shore based divert landing site, Wallops Island Air Field," Cmdr. Ryan Perry, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said in an e-mail Wednesday evening. "X-47B navigated to and landed without incident."
Only two X-47B aircraft have been built, and there are no plans to acquire any more. The concept and engineering demonstrator program will likely finish its flight program and be closed down in a few months, as the Navy transitions to a new program to develop an operational unmanned carrier-based jet.
That program, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike effort, is expected to lead an operational squadron by 2019, Mabus said.