For the U.S. Navy, the age of steam may finally be almost over.
Over the weekend, the Navy made its first-ever launch of an aircraft, an F/A-18E Super Hornet, using a cutting-edge electromagnetic apparatus. The test operation of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is a significant, though still preliminary, achievement in the Navy's planned shift away from the steam catapults that have been in use on aircraft carriers for more than a half-century.
"Saturday's EMALS launch demonstrates an evolution in carrier flight deck operations using advanced computer control, system monitoring, and automation for tomorrow's carrier air wings," said Capt. James Donnelly, Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment program manager, in a statement.
The launch took place on land at the Naval Air Systems Command test site in Lakehurst, N.J.
EMALS is a key element of the upcoming Ford class of carriers, starting with the USS Gerald R. Ford, which the Navy expects to go into service in 2015. (For more on the Ford, see "Making the world's most cutting-edge aircraft carrier" from our Road Trip 2010 series.) As of June, the new carrier was about 15 percent complete.
The Navy says it needs the "higher launch energy capacity" of the electromagnetic system in order to handle newer, heavier, and faster aircraft. The service also expects EMALS to deliver improvements in system weight, maintenance, and efficiency, as well as accuracy of end-speed control and smooth acceleration at both high and low speeds.
The test pilot who flew the Super Hornet said the EMALS experience met his expectations, and was in fact quite familiar-feeling. "I went through the same procedures as on a steam catapult. The catapult stroke felt similar to a steam catapult," said Lt. Daniel Radocaj, from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23, in a statement.
EMALS is being developed by General Atomics, the company that also builds the Predator unmanned aircraft. Earlier this year, General Atomics signed a $676 million fixed-price contract to produce EMALS, along with advanced, electronic arresting gear, for use on Ford-class carriers, according to a Navy Times story from October. (Arresting gear is what catches and stops aircraft landing on a carrier.)
Here's how General Atomics describes the technology: "The EMALS system is a multimegawatt electric power system involving generators, energy storage, power conversion, a 100,000 hp electric motor, and an advanced technology closed loop control system with diagnostic health monitoring."
Testing at Lakehurst will continue in 2011 with launches of the T-45 and C-2 aircraft.
Correction, December 23 at 7:40 a.m. PT: This story earlier misidentified one of the planes that will be used for the testing in 2011. It is the T-45.