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A Few Notable NAVAIR Aircraft and Weapons

Superlatives and success stories

 

Since it replaced the Bureau of Naval Weapons in 1966, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has ordered, tested, and developed an impressive variety of aircraft and weapons. Many made aviation history, others were steps toward long-sought capabilities. From the biggest to the fastest, the strangest to the slowest, every system represented an opportunity to learn.

NAVAIR went a step further when the X-47B conducted the first-ever autonomous aerial refueling of an unmanned aircraft in April 2015, completing the final test objective under UCAS-D.

The number of aircraft and weapons programs undertaken by NAVAIR in the last five decades is so large that we can only highlight a handful here. They represent just a slice of the superlatives and successes made every day across NAVAIR.

 

X-47B

Though it seems to have happened only yesterday, the testing and development of the Northrop Grumman X-47 is a watershed in naval aviation. A series of firsts, beginning with the first-ever full-size unmanned aircraft carrier-based catapult launch from USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77) in May 2013, were accomplished during NAVAIR’s management of the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator  (UCAS-D) program from 2011 to 2015.

The UCAS-D program had its origins in the early 2000s, but NAVAIR expanded its initial scope to demonstrate carrier launches and recoveries, as well as autonomous inflight refueling. A test program that began at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River in 2012 saw autonomous precision approaches and runway arrested landings moved to sea trials in 2013. The first carrier-based arrested landing, also aboard the Bush, was made in July of that year.

NAVAIR went a step further when the X-47B conducted the first-ever autonomous aerial refueling of an unmanned aircraft in April 2015, completing the final test objective under UCAS-D.

x-47b

An X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator conducts a touch and go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). This was the first time any unmanned aircraft had completed a touch and go landing at sea. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis

NAVAIR UCAS Program Manager Capt. Jaime Engdahl observed that, “We have been using the same [carrier] landing technology for more than 50 years now, and the idea that we can take a large UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] and operate in that environment is fascinating.”

 

E-6B Mercury

What’s the biggest aircraft tested and developed by NAVAIR? The Boeing E-6B Mercury has that distinction.

Based on the Boeing 707-320 (and subsequent E-3A), the E-6B is a communications relay and strategic airborne command post aircraft. Initially conceived as the E-6A to replace the EC-130Q in relaying National Command Authority (NCA) instructions to fleet ballistic missile submarines, a mission known as TACAMO (“Take Charge and Move Out”), it has since taken on a dual mission. The E-6B also provides broader airborne command, control, and communications between the NCA and U.S. strategic and non-strategic forces.

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Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...