Washington – Despite a tight veil of security being thrown over Boeing’s Phantom Ray unmanned aircraft demonstration program, several industry officials say the stealth-shaped aircraft made its first flight at Edwards AFB, Calif., on April 27.
“Boeing conducted what appeared to be a successful 17-minute first flight and recovery,” said an observer at Edwards. “First turn was shortly after takeoff – just over lakebed. First two turns were surprisingly tight as commented by those observing near inner runway. Rest of flight other than final approach were too far away to see. Gear down for entire flight. The landing was observed to be air force style, flared.”
Boeing officials were only allows to confirm that the flight had taken place, and nothing more could be said until security has been lifted. Phantom Ray is considered one of the “starting points” for development of a U.S. Navy Uclass unmanned, stealthy, carrier-based strike aircraft.
The X-45C is the prototype vehicle for the Phantom Ray demonstration program. Another design, the Avenger (Predator C) is the product of General Atomics. Both aircraft are expected to be involved in the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike project, which is itself an offshoot of the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program. Northrop-Grumman’s X-47B made its first 29-min. flight from Edwards on Feb. 4. Lockheed Martin is expected to enter a design based on its Polecat and RQ-170 Sentinel.
In associated UAV events, the RQ-170 – sporting full-motion video capability since its return to Afghanistan operations last year – is thought to have participated in operations that led up to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. special operations forces.
“Our success was built on developing and confirming leads and information that in part relied on airborne ISR along the lines of what it took to terminate al Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006,” says a former intelligence specialist. “Remotely piloted aircraft were a big part of the development of the knowledge base that led up to this operation.”
An embargo was placed on any release of information about the Phantom Ray flight until the initial test data were analyzed and videos reviewed which could be completed by May 3-4. The Phantom Ray is a further development of the Phantom Works’ X-45C, which has a weapons bay designed to be the same size and carry the same weapons as Lockheed’s manned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Phantom Ray airframe was carried from Boeing’s St. Louis facility to Edwards on Dec. 14 atop one of NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, where it was housed in the Dryden Flight Research Center.