News | Oct. 4, 2022

Unmanned Carrier Aviation Demonstration Gives Glimpse of the Air Wing of the Future

By Lt. Nick “ALF” Waugh

The Air Wing of the Future is here. The Unmanned Carrier Aviation Demonstration (UCAD) conducted by the MQ-25 Stingray Integrated Test Team recently evaluated the deck of the aircraft.

The MQ-25 will be the first unmanned platform to operate from the flight decks of U.S. aircraft carriers, as well as take on the responsibility of refueling other platforms within their designated air wing.

This refueling capability alone will free the F/A-18 Hornet to focus solely on its strike fighter mission set, and pave the way for future unmanned platforms’ integration into the carrier air wing.

UGAD brought the Boeing-owned prototype, known as T1, aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). Traditionally, aircraft platforms navigate the flight deck with the help of flight deck directors, affectionately referred to as “Yellow Shirts” for the yellow jerseys and float coats they wear on the flight deck. Yellow Shirts communicate with pilots via hand signals to help them taxi out of tightly packed spots on the flight deck, around obstacles such as other aircraft and people, and into the catapult system used to launch aircraft. As an unmanned asset, MQ-25 will not have the luxury of a pilot in a cockpit to view hand signals, so a deck handling system was developed to accomplish the task of taxiing and negotiating obstacles between the aircraft and its ultimate destination of the catapult track or parking spot.

During the demo, T1 employed Deck Operators (DO) who use Deck Control Devices (DCD)—a control stick held in the right hand with a small display strapped to the right forearm—and radios around a belt. The DOs stood behind the Yellow Shirt and input commands to the aircraft via the DCD, communicated by the same hand signals given to manned platforms. Multiple DOs were used so the aircraft could seamlessly taxi across the entire span of the flight deck. When the aircraft taxied beyond a DO’s range, control of the aircraft was passed to the next DO in position on the flight deck via an input on the forearm display. This technique was used to evaluate deck handling for taxiing out of the landing area, simulating post recovery spotting, as well as taxiing into the catapult, taxiing out of the catapult and taxiing into tight parking spots.

The other two components of flight deck integration are propulsion tests and lighting evaluations. Propulsion tests are used to evaluate an aircraft’s engine performance during start-up on the flight deck with tail and crosswinds, its performance while waiting in line for launch behind a jet blast deflector with an EA-18G Growler, at varying power capacities, in the catapult, and with T1 in the catapult at varying power capacities. The lighting evaluations are conducted at night with a variety of flight deck light settings to determine proper illumination of the aircraft for night deck operations.

The Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS) testing using a surrogate aircraft was conducted concurrently during the detachment and collected much needed data for MQ-25, as it will be the first aircraft to use JPALS for fully automated landings aboard aircraft carriers. The MQ-25 test team flew 13 approaches and collected data using the same hardware and software that will be used by both the ship and MQ-25 for recoveries. Once the recovery is complete, the DOs pick up control of the aircraft and use the same deck handling system to park MQ-25 on the flight deck.

UCAD was a success and provided the necessary data to reduce risk moving forward in the program, and demonstrated the capability to safely and efficiently integrate and operate with the air wing on the flight decks of aircraft carriers.