No matter how I look at this, it still seems like science fiction – a combat aircraft without a pilot that is capable of flying itself, making its own decisions, recognizing and neutralizing threats, and taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier. Last Friday (Feb 4), the Northrop Grumman-built U.S. Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft successfully completed its historic first flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The era of the unmanned combat plane is fast approaching.

Conducted by a U.S. Navy/Northrop Grumman test team, the flight took off at 2:09 p.m. PST and lasted 29 minutes. This event marks a critical step in the program, moving the team forward to meet the demonstration objectives of a tailless fighter-sized unmanned aircraft to safely take off from and land on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

"First flight represents the compilation of numerous tests to validate the airworthiness of the aircraft, and the robustness and reliability of the software that allows it to operate as an autonomous system and eventually have the ability to take-off and land aboard an aircraft carrier," said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy's UCAS-D program manager.

"Designing a tailless, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft from a clean sheet is no small feat," said Janis Pamiljans, vice president and UCAS-D program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "Commitment, collaboration and uncompromising technical excellence among the Navy, Northrop Grumman and the UCAS-D team industry partners made today's flight a reality. We are indeed honored to have given wings to the Navy's vision for exploring unmanned carrier aviation."

Taking off under hazy skies, the X-47B climbed to an altitude of 5,000 feet, flew several racetrack-type patterns, and landed safely at 2:38 p.m. PST. The flight provided test data to verify and validate system software for guidance and navigation, and the aerodynamic control of the tailless design.

As with all test programs, first flight represents the culmination, verification and certification of pre-flight system data collected and analyzed by both the Navy and Northrop Grumman. Airframe proof load tests, propulsion system accelerated mission tests, software maturity and reliability simulations, full system taxi tests, and numerous other system test activities were all completed and certified prior to first flight.

The aircraft will remain at Edwards AFB for flight envelope expansion before transitioning to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, later this year. There, the system will undergo additional tests to validate its readiness to begin testing in the maritime and carrier environment. The UCAS-D program is preparing the X-47B for carrier trials in 2013.

The Navy awarded the UCAS-D prime contract to Northrop Grumman in August 2007. The six-year contract calls for the development of two X-47B fighter-sized aircraft. The program will demonstrate the first-ever carrier launches and recoveries by an autonomous, unmanned aircraft with a low-observable-relevant platform. Autonomous aerial refueling will also be performed after carrier integration and at-sea trials.