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Despite the tight veil of security thrown over Boeing‘s Phantom Ray unmanned aircraft demonstration program, several industry officials say the stealth-shaped aircraft made its first flight at Edwards AFB, Calif. on Wed. April 27.“Boeing conducted what appeared to be a successful 17-minute first flight and recovery,” said an observer at Edwards. “First turn was shortly after takeoff -- just over lakebed. The first 2 turns were surprisingly tight as commented by those observing near inner runway. Rest of flight other than final approach were too far away to see. Gear down for entire flight. The landing was observed to be air force style, flared.”Boeing officials initially were only allowed to confirm that the flight had taken place. Phantom Ray is considered one of the “starting points” for a U.S. Navy Uclass unmanned, stealthy, carrier-based strike aircraft. However, other officials say a second flight is set for Thursday May 5.After Aviation Week broke the news Monday of the first flight, Boeing released additional information. The first flight followed a series of high-speed taxi tests in March that validated ground guidance, navigation and control and verified mission planning, pilot interface and operational procedures. Phantom Ray flew to 7,500 feet and reached a speed of 178 knots.Phantom Ray is one of four known low-observable unmanned reconnaissance or combat aircraft being readied for various programs.The X-45C is the prototype vehicle for the Phantom Ray demonstration program. Another design, the tail-hook-equipped Avenger (Predator C) is the product of General Atomics. Both aircraft are expected to be involved in the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike project which is itself an offshoot of the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program. Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B made its first 29-min. flight from Edwards on Feb. 4. Lockheed Martin is expected to enter a design based on its experimental Polecat and operational, black world RQ-170 Sentinel.Google Earth imagery shows that Lockheed Martin has continued to expand the proprietary facility at Yucca Lake, Nev. It was established for Polecat testing and it includes a hangar that accommodates a 65-ft. wingspan aircraft.Not all these aircraft will fit the Uclass template. The Navy has to decide what’s feasible by 2018. The Avenger and RQ-170 are much smaller than the Phantom Ray and X-47B. The Avenger is thought to be the least stealthy of the designs.In associated UAV events, the RQ-170 – sporting full-motion video capability since its return to Afghanistan operations last year – is thought to have participated in operations that led up to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. special operations forces.The Pentagon has been employing airborne hyperspectral sensors for a variety of missions. These technologies are being employed in Afghanistan and other areas including Pakistan. (AW&ST, April 11, p. 55)“Our success was built on developing and confirming leads and information that in part relied on airborne ISR along the lines of what it took to terminate al Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006,” says a former intelligence specialist. “Remotely piloted aircraft were a big part of the development of the knowledge base that led up to this operation.”An embargo was placed on any release of information about the Phantom Ray flight until the initial test data were analyzed and videos reviewed which could be completed by May 3-4. The Phantom Ray is a further development of the Phantom Works’ X-45C which has weapons designed to be the same size as Lockheed Martin’s manned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.The Phantom Ray airframe was carried from Boeing’s St. Louis facility to Edwards on Dec. 14 atop one of NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft where it was housed in the Dryden Flight Research Center.Read the Aviation Week article: Phantom Ray Under Way In First Flight.With contributions from Bill Sweetman
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