May 14, 2013
This morning, for the first time in history, a combat aircraft with no pilot onboard took off from an aircraft carrier at sea.
The X-47B demonstrator launched from the USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia at 11:18 a.m., and flew to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.
“Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy,” said Vice Adm. David Buss, commander of the Naval Air Forces, in a released statement.
Next up on the list of milestones — flying approaches and landings on a pitching flight deck.
April 11, 2013
You’re going to need a clock. That’s what the National Air and Space Museum wants to get across to visitors with its new permanent exhibit, Time and Navigation, opening tomorrow.
“If you want to know where you are, or if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock,” said Carlene Stephens, a curator at the National Museum of American History, which houses the Smithsonian’s collection of clocks and contributed to the exhibit. Appropriately, visitors enter the exhibit by walking under a beautiful blue and gold clock, in the “spirit of the early and truly magnificent European clocks,” says exhibit designer Heidi Eitel. She wanted to include the automaton clock that comes to life every quarter hour to tell “the story of when people began sharing time.”
The exhibit takes you through three eras, starting with Navigating at Sea, when sailors first used sextants and star charts to find their way across vast oceans. Though ships have had navigators since the 1600s, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that they had marine chronometers that kept reliable time at sea and allowed navigation with any precision. Galileo’s pendulum clock and an interactive 19th-century ship’s sextant that lets visitors navigate by the stars are highlights.
Next, the exhibit takes flight. Even aviation heros like Charles Lindbergh got lost before Navy Lieutenant Commander P.V.H. Weems developed air navigation techniques. Overhead, visitors can see the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae, which Wiley Post and famed navigator Harold Gatty flew around the world in 1931 in just eight days — a feat that could not have been accomplished without precise location-determining skills.
In the third and final era, navigation gets three-dimensional as it moves into space. Throughout this section of the exhibit are star charts where Earth becomes just another potential destination on the map. Our education on space navigation starts with the story of NASA’s nine Ranger spacecraft, notorious for their failures to reach the moon, including two that completely missed the mark. But astronauts eventually made it to the surface, and visitors can see the Apollo sextant and space shuttle star tracker here. “When we go back into deep space,” said curator Andrew Johnston, “it’ll be very interesting to see how far we’ve come with navigation.” With the technology available today, the exhibit explains, spacecraft missions in 2012 were 100,000 times more accurate than they were in the 1960s.
Finally, the exhibit shows us how we navigate today. Atomic clocks (one is on view in case you need to set your watch) that keep time to three billionths of a second, GPS satellites that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, and smartphones that crunch all sorts of data have replaced chronometers and sextants and bulky books of charts. In fact, navigation today doesn’t even need people: Stanford’s driverless-car Stanley is also on display. It won DARPA’s 2005 Grand Challenge by navigating an off-road 132-mile race. But proving its necessity in our everyday modern lives, Time and Navigation ends with stories from today — a farmer, a fireman and a student explain how their livelihoods are affected by the technology developed since the first sailor located the North Star.
April 9, 2013
The U.S. Navy says it’s making better-than-expected progress on developing ship-borne lasers that can shoot down a UAV in flight — so much so that the service has accelerated plans to deploy a solid-state laser on a ship (the USS Ponce) at sea next year.
The reason isn’t hard to understand. “Our conservative data tells us a shot of directed energy costs under $1,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder in a press release. “Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to fire a missile, and you can begin to see the merits of this capability.”
The video shows (from both points of view, and in animation) what happens when a solid-state laser takes aim at a remotely piloted target vehicle, during a test conducted in the waters off San Diego last year.
November 30, 2012
Score another one for the drones. Yesterday the U.S. Navy demonstrated the first-ever (land-based) catapult launch of a pilotless combat vehicle, when the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System took off from a runway at Patuxent River, Maryland.
Earlier this week, another X-47B was loaded onto an aircraft carrier for sea trials. It won’t be long before unmanned vehicles are routinely performing carrier landings — a feat once reserved for only the nerviest pilots.
November 29, 2012
For 20 months during World War II, northern Italians were caught between the retreating Nazi front and invading Allied forces. As confusion reigned, one story circulated among civilians time and again: An elusive and unidentified airplane, nicknamed “Pippo,” was said to fly over northern Italy each night—solo—sometimes strafing and bombing the landscape, other times performing reconnaissance. In all of the accounts of Pippo found in newspapers, letters, diaries, and oral histories, not a single person claimed to have seen Pippo. But the aircraft’s distinctive sound made it easy to recognize.
The nicknaming of solitary night intruders wasn’t unusual, writes folklorist Alan Perry (Gettysburg College) in his 2003 article in the Journal of Folklore Research. Members of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 416th Night Fighter Squadron, assigned to the Ninth Air Force in the European Theater of Operations, referred to the Junkers Ju-88 flying overhead as “Reccie Joe.” Marines who fought on Guadalcanal had the Japanese “Washing Machine Charlie” to deal with. And GI’s fighting in North Africa and Italy called the night fighter they heard “Bed-Check Charlie.” (“Bed-Check Charlie” also made an appearance during the Korean War.)
What made Pippo different was that your political allegiance determined his identity. For those who opposed the Germans, Pippo, says Perry, was a friendly Allied pilot conducting reconnaissance. For those upset that Italy had betrayed its former German ally, Pippo was a sinister German intent on dropping bombs.
Perry looked for evidence of lone fighters waging psychological warfare in northern Italy. He notes that in 1944, “night intruder missions became an integral part of Operation Strangle, an effort to destroy German attempts to reinforce ground troops.” Night fighter squadrons of both the RAF (the 255th, the 256th, and the 600th) and the U.S. Army Air Forces (the 414th, 416th, and 417th) were part of this effort. Could Pippo have been a Bristol Beaufighter, a Northrop P-61, or a de Havilland Mosquito? Some Italian historians lean toward the Mosquito.
An interesting footnote: During Perry’s research, he ran across a contemporary piece in the daily Il Giornale by correspondent Fausto Biloslavo. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Biloslavo was sent to Afghanistan to cover the U.S.-led bombing of Afghan training camps and Taliban air defenses. Biloslavo writes, “The scheme for the raids is always the same: before the attack an airplane with normal wings, not delta shaped like the fighters, circles very high above the targets. It’s either a reconnoitering aircraft or an electronic jewel that interrupts enemy communications and perhaps advanced defense weapon systems. In fact, we’ve noticed that during the flight of Pippo, as we’ve nicknamed him, there is no way to use the satellite phones. Soon after, the bombers come in pairs of two and dive upon their targets.”
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