A front row seat to aviation history
The Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia
By Jason Reed
Any news photographer that has been in the business for a decent length of time may say to you that he or she has “seen it all and done it all” or that “there is nothing new that hasn’t been shot already.” Until this week, you could also paint me with that same brush.
But for a moment in time on May 14, 2013, I was a wide-eyed kid again, thankful that my job as a photographer afforded me access to witness a world-first. The U.S. Navy made aviation history by catapulting an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, testing a long-range, stealthy, bat-winged plane that represents a jump forward in drone technology.
Gathering at sunrise in Norfolk, a handful of press ranging from military industry reporters to network TV crews received a safety briefing that detailed, among other things, how to exit our crashed helicopter in the event of a water landing (a little unnerving) to wearing double ear protection, helmets and goggles at all times during our 45 minute flight out onto the deck of the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush, a nuclear-powered Nimitz-class supercarrier in the Atlantic Ocean. Upon first sight, that 103,600 ton ship was just a small dot on the horizon, the full reality of its might only realized when we touched down on the deck over three football fields in length.
That experience alone was worth the 5am alarm, but the real reason was sitting there right on the deck — the X-47B, an object so obscure and futuristic, you’d think you just stepped onto the film set of Battlestar Galactica. The folded wings brought flashbacks of a seven-year old seeing that first Star Wars movie when Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter attacked the Death Star. This bat-winged, tailless unmanned combat aerial vehicle, developed by the military hardware supplier Northrop Grumman is designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers.
The future of pilot-less aviation really struck home when we were able to photograph up-close the two “pilots” in charge of launching the drone off the deck. In-flight suits and face masks, they appeared as if they were ready to hit the skies themselves. But this is one aircraft without pilot seats, no canopy and no joystick. Strapped to the pilot’s right arms were remote controllers that relied on hand gestures to maneuver the drone into the steam-powered catapult, the same sling shot that still launches F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets and previous to those, the F-14A Tomcats made famous from the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun.”
With its incredibly loud jet engine screaming through two layers of ear protection, the catapult officer, wearing a yellow vest with the word “Shooter” on his back, began an elaborate dance of hand signals to a pilot who, for the first time, was not watching from a cockpit but was standing alongside him. In the controlled chaos of an aircraft carrier launch, at this point it’s a matter of holding steady and trusting that the camera panning technique you’d honed in the past, shooting formula 1 motor racing and other sports, didn’t let you down. There are no do-overs when you’re shooting at a 1/60th of a second to capture the motion blur of the drone as it is launched from the ship out at sea. That point-of-no-return moment came when the drone was launched down the deck, going from zero to 165 miles per hour in about 2 seconds, (zero to 266km/h). It gave me goose bumps as I am sure it did the Northrop Grumman VIPs who were there to witness their multi-million dollar baby’s launch over the cold Atlantic Ocean.
After circling our carrier a couple of times, the X-47B disappeared into the skies and landed at an air field on the U.S. mainland shortly after.
As humans we can’t help but marvel at giant strides in technology. The invention of the wheel, the steam engine and the jet engine were all giant, revolutionary strides in the human endeavor but I have one last thought after witnessing this historic event – we are probably less than a generation away from never needing to train another Navy jet fighter pilot. I wonder if this new generation of flying robots will adopt cool names like “Maverick”, “Goose” and “Ice Man”.
X-47B just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.