Steam-fired Navy planes are so passe. Over the weekend, the Navy used a huge electric charge to catapult a manned flight into the air.
Naval aviation officials are tight-lipped about the test launch for now and we don't know if the test went according to plan. But Danger Room has confirmed that the Navy's experimental Electromagnetic Aviation Launch System completed tests on Saturday and Sunday of the deck catapult of the future from its test-bed home at Lakehurst, New Jersey. That's somewhat behind schedule from reports indicating EMALS was supposed to provide a manned flight launch by the fall. We're told to await a full roll-out of the test results, possibly later today.
What's the advantage of the so-called EMALS? If it works as manufacturer General Atomics intends, the power provided through EMALS is more easily adjustable than steam catapults, allowing it to launch everything from fighter jets to small drones - steam isn't good for launching smaller aircraft - all with less wasted energy. Supposedly it can recharge faster than steam, allowing more rapid launching. The system will draw its power from the generators aboard its next-generation Ford-class aircraft carrier, which the Navy wants commissioned by September 2015 despite recent cost over-runs.
This isn't EMALS' first test: testing with dead weights began at Lakehurst, launching the weights at speeds up to 180 knots. Aviation Week's Bill Sweetman reported in June, "So far, tests show no signs that the powerful electrical surges cause electromagnetic interference with aircraft, ammunition or ejection seats."
We don't yet know what kind of plane EMALS launched this weekend (an F/A-18 Super Hornet, I presume?); how much energy was required and generated; or what the generated speeds were. But if the test succeeded, it'll be some good news for a program that hit a snag in January, when equipment failure caused a three-month test delay. General Atomics has to deliver its electric catapult to the Newport News shipyard by May 2011 in order to meet the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford's production schedule, so the test helps determine the future of the next-gen supercarrier.
Navy watchers are looking at EMALS closely, since outfitting the Ford with steam catapults instead is estimated to cause a year-plus delay in the carrier. The outgoing chairman of the House's shipbuilding subcommittee warned this summer that if EMALS fails, "the nation has paid billions of dollars for an unusable ship."