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A Few Notable NAVAIR Aircraft and Weapons

Superlatives and success stories

 

NAVAIR ultimately developed the MH-53E Sea Dragon for the airborne mine countermeasures role, modifying the aircraft’s digital flight control system and increasing its fuel capacity and endurance. MH-53Es became operational in 1986.

The CH-53K King Stallion, which first flew in October 2015, will soon join NAVAIR’s inventory of test aircraft. With new engines, avionics, software, and structures, the King Stallion will be a huge helicopter but its footprint will actually be narrower than the CH-53E’s, though it will lift more than twice the load of the Super Stallion.

 

X-31

Not all test and development work leads to operational systems. Sometimes NAVAIR undertakes broader applied research. Such was the case with the Rockwell-Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm X-31.

e-6

A U.S. Navy E-6 Mercury strategic airborne command post aircraft takes flight at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The E-6 “TACAMO” aircraft communicates with ballistic missile submarines while also expanding the mission to include ground missiles and nuclear-armed strategic bombers. U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger

Two X-31s were built for the early 1990s Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability program, which was conceived to test fighter thrust vectoring technology. A cranked, canard delta-wing aircraft without horizontal tail surfaces, the X-31 relied on three paddles directing the exhaust to control pitch and yaw. In 1992-93, the X-31 achieved controlled flight at a 70-degree angle of attack and successfully executed a rapid minimum-radius, 180-degree turn using a post-stall maneuver.

Its success led to a second program in the late 1990s called VECTOR, a joint venture between NAVAIR, Germany’s defense procurement agency BWB, Boeing’s Phantom Works, and DASA. NAS Patuxent River was the flight test site from 2002 to 2003, where the X-31 flew extremely short takeoff and landing approaches first on a virtual runway at 5,000 feet in the sky to ensure that an inertial navigation/GPS system combo could accurately guide the aircraft with the centimeter accuracy.

VECTOR culminated with the first ever autonomous landing of a manned aircraft with high angle of attack (24 degrees) and short landing – a precursor for what the X-37B would achieve with no pilot over a decade later.

This article was first published in NAVAIR: 50 Years of Naval Air Systems Command, 1966-2016 magazine.

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