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EMALS Successfully Launches Super Hornets

Navy officials got an early Christmas present last month when one of the most crucial, but also deeply troubled, components of the next class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers finally passed a critical test.

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) successfully accelerated an F/A-18E Super Hornet to take off speed at the Naval Air Engineering Station, Lakehurst, N.J., on Dec. 18, 2010. Before the day was out, the revolutionary system catapulted three more Super Hornets into the air, apparently proving EMALS will be ready for installation in the hull of what will be the USS Gerald R. Ford.

Although five months later than planned, the successful test shots could lift a dark cloud of doubt over the Navy’s plans to give the Ford and subsequent carriers a launch system that eliminates the need for the bulky and maintenance-intensive steam catapults used since the 1950s.

EMALS is being produced by General Atomics, a San Diego-based firm best known for its widely used unmanned aerial vehicles, but which also is a leader in advanced electrical power and electromagnetic systems. In addition to EMALs, General Atomics is producing one of the two prototype tactical models of the electromagnetic railgun being tested by the Office of Naval Research.

Like the railgun, EMALS uses a huge jolt of electricity to produce powerful magnetic forces that can propel an object at great speed. ONR’s railgun recently conducted a test shot at 33 megajoules of power – a force that could have thrown a warhead at least 100 nautical miles and hit a target at five times the speed of sound.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet is launched during a test of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) at Naval Air Systems Command, Lakehurst, N.J. The first ship components are on schedule to be delivered to CVN 78 in 2011. U.S. Navy photo

Because the amount of electricity sent into the system can be controlled, EMALS will be able to launch a wide range of aircraft, including heavier jets than can be handled by the current steam catapults. The new system also takes up a lot less space and is expected to be far easier and cheaper to operate and to maintain.

General Atomics also is responsible for producing an electromagnetic arresting system that will go on the aft end of the Ford’s flight deck, replacing the current system that uses hydraulic pressure to restrain the thick cables, or “wires,” that drag a landing aircraft to a stop in several hundred feet. It is to be capable of arresting a wider range of aircraft with less stress. And like EMALS, it will require fewer sailors to operate and maintain.

The two EM systems are key elements of the technological and design advances that are expected to make the Ford-class carriers more effective, with smaller crews, than the current Nimitz-class flattops.

But both systems have fallen behind schedule and were cited last March by the Government Accountability Office among the critical technologies for the Ford that had not been “demonstrated in a realistic environment.”  EMALS was running about seven months behind schedule, raising fears that it would not be ready in time for the Ford, now under construction at Newport News Shipyard.

That would force an expensive redesign of the carrier that would delay for years the Ford’s scheduled 2015 entry into the fleet as the replacement for the Enterprise.

Those concerns increased last January when an apparent software flaw caused the EMALS test system at Lakehurst to run backwards, causing severe damage.

But Navy and General Atomics officials said the Dec. 18 test launches demonstrated that EMALS will be ready for installation in the Ford.

“We’re precisely on track to start the delivery of the first pieces of hardware to Newport News in May 2011,” said R. Scott Forney III, director of General Atomics’ EMALS program.