For more than 100 years, men and women dedicated to the advancement of aviation and aerospace technology have had their efforts recognized with the Robert J. Collier Trophy.
The 525-pound trophy, which is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, is awarded for improvements to the efficiency, safety and performance of air or space vehicles in America.
To qualify for the award, the nominees must have thoroughly demonstrated the aircraft’s capabilities during the year prior. The 2013 Collier Trophy award recipient was announced April 9 at the National Aeronautic Association Spring Awards dinner in Arlington, Va. The winners were the U.S. Navy, Northrop Grumman and the X-47B Industry team for the Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration. The X-47B is the first unmanned, autonomous air system to operate from an aircraft carrier.
“This program demonstrated technologies and operating concepts that will revolutionize the future of naval aviation. Throughout the history of X-47B flight test, from its inception at Edwards AFB to its time here at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, the team has completed a number of significant firsts for unmanned air system operations,” said (Navy) Capt. Beau Duarte, Unmanned Carrier Aviation Program Manager.
The Collier Award has been received by many famous aviators and projects, starting with Glenn Curtiss for the development of the hydro-aeroplane. In 2012, the award went to The NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity Project Team, for their landing on Mars.
Duarte said winning the Collier Trophy puts the entire X-47B team in a category with the likes of Glenn Curtiss, Orville Wright, Chuck Yeager, Kelly Johnson, Apollo 11, and the Hubble Telescope.
“Garnering Collier Trophy recognition is a tremendous accomplishment for the X-47B team,” said Maj. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., Air Force Test Center commander. “The 412th Test Wing should be extremely proud of the invaluable support they provided the X-47B program and their contributions to the X-47B team receiving this award. This speaks volumes to the dedicated efforts of multiple people at Edwards.”
Carl Johnson, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s Navy UCAS program added, “Edwards Air Force Base is an outstanding place for initial flight testing of any platform. It was a privilege to conduct the historic first flights of X-47B among such a professional work force.”
Both of the X-47Bs being tested today were assembled at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., Aircraft Excellence Center of Excellence, the same site that was used for initial low-speed taxiing.
“Taxi testing was accomplished on our runways,” said Kenneth C. Neitzel, Airfield Operations flight director and Flight Safety program manager, Air Force Plant 42. “This created a challenge as testing was often in four- to five-hour blocks. Plant 42 Airfield Management de-conflicted other aircraft operations contributing to mission success.”
Lt. Col. Gene Cummins, Air Force Plant 42 director added, “The Collier Trophy award for the X-47B is another in a long string of successful DOD programs that originated at Air Force Plant 42.”
The tailless, strike fighter-sized unmanned aircraft’s next stop was at Edwards AFB where both the Navy and Northrop Grumman preformed a series of tests including airframe proof load tests, propulsion system accelerated mission tests, software maturity and reliability simulations and full system taxi tests.
“The X-47B UCAS program completed much of its initial flight test program at Edwards AFB. The system completed its first medium and high-speed taxis at Edwards,” said Caitlin O’Connor, Northrop Grumman spokesperson.
Feb. 4, 2011, the X-47B first took to the skies at Edwards. The flight lasted 29 minutes during which time the aircraft preformed several racetrack-type patterns.
“The entire flight was completed in Edwards AFB restricted air space. Following first flight, the X-47B UCAS program completed initial envelope expansion testing at Edwards,” said O’Connor.
Later that same year, the X-47B reached another major milestone at Edwards when it retracted its landing gear and flew in its cruise configuration for the first time. During that flight, precision navigation hardware and software that would allow the aircraft to land precisely on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier was validated.
Still at Edwards, the X-47B completed the first-ever touch-and-go landing by an unmanned aircraft May 13, 2012. The aircraft was also at Edwards when effective command and control was demonstrated allowing it to be reclassified from “unproven” to “experimental.”
Nov. 29, 2012, the X-47B completed its first successful land-based catapult launch in at the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md. Both X-47Bs are assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
Subsequently, X-47B has operated on the USS Harry S. Truman, USS George H.W. Bush and USS Theodore Roosevelt. While on the Roosevelt last November, tests were done to evaluate the systems deck handling, carrier approaches and landings in off-nominal wind conditions, digitized ship systems interfaces, and concept of operations development.
In the last year, the X-47B has completed eight catapult launches from an aircraft carrier, 30 touch-and-goes and seven arrested landings.
According to O’Conner, later this year, the X-47B will return to sea for more testing aboard an aircraft carrier. The tests are designed to help the Navy further develop a concept of operations for unmanned carrier aviation, with a specific focus on how the X-47B UCAS operates with specific aircraft such as the F/A-18.
On May 29, the eight-foot trophy will be taken from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to be formally presented to the X-47B team at the annual Robert J. Collier Trophy Dinner in Arlington, Va.