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On the tarmac of St. Louis’ historic Lambert Field, the future of aircraft carrier aviation may be taking shape. Phantom Works, Boeing’s shadowy advanced prototyping group, has painted part of the tarmac to resemble the flight deck of a carrier. Over the past few months, the company been using this space at all hours of the day and night to test its latest military UAV: a prototype for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 “Stingray” program.
A video viewed by Aviation Week and labeled “competition sensitive” shows the huge drone taxiing around the runway during daylight hours on its own power. It stops, starts, moves forward and hooks into position behind the catapult, prepared for launch. But the long-wing aircraft has not yet flown; it is instead being used for carrier suitability trials, including a series of maneuvers to ensure the UAV can easily, reliably and safely move around the deck like any manned aviation platform.
Exactly how the aircraft is directed around the deck is a company secret. We have agreed not to write about it, but one can guess that it will not involve traditional hand signals or wands. As part of the carrier suitability tests, Phantom Works also has been validating the UAV’s “spot factor” and ensuring that it can park anywhere a Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet can, including the tightest spot of all, a slither of deck aft of elevator No. 4 called “the finger.”
The clean-sheet T-1 aircraft dates to October 2012, when Boeing completed the initial design review. It was quietly rolled out two years later and is now supporting Boeing’s concept refinement and deck-handling demonstration work for the Navy, while also building up to first flight. Gaddis will not say exactly when the aircraft is due to fly, but it will likely happen sometime after the contract award in August.