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.”