US Navy's X-47B unmanned jets are heading to museum after 11 years of service

The historic aircraft have a long-standing history of successful operations. So why were they decommissioned?
Loukia Papadopoulos
Northrop Grumman X-47B
Northrop Grumman X-47B. US Navy photo by Liz Wolter.

Northop Grumman 

When it comes to aircraft, perhaps there is none more historical than the X-47B, and now Northrop Grumman tells The War Zone that they are being prepared to be delivered to two aviation museums for permanent display after being decommissioned from U.S. Army operations.

Two powerful mighty aircraft

To truly understand the might and power of these models, one can visit their maker’s website which describes them as follows:

"The X-47B is a tailless, strike fighter-sized unmanned aircraft developed by Northrop Grumman as part of the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) Carrier Demonstration program. Under a contract awarded in 2007, the company designed, produced and is currently flight testing two X-47B aircraft. In 2013, these aircraft were used to demonstrate the first-ever carrier-based launches and recoveries by a relevant, low-observable, unmanned autonomous aircraft."

US Navy's X-47B unmanned jets are heading to museum after 11 years of service
The X-47B's first take off in California.

"In April 2015, the X-47B once again made aviation history by successfully conducting the first-ever Autonomous Aerial Refueling (AAR) of an unmanned aircraft. AAR unlocks the full potential of what unmanned surveillance, strike, and reconnaissance systems can do in support of the Navy. These historic demonstrations solidify the concept of future unmanned aircraft and prove that the X-47B can perform standard missions — like aerial refueling — and operate seamlessly with manned aircraft as part of the Carrier Air Wing."

Perhaps more importantly, the aircraft proved that a semi-autonomous flying wing aircraft could successfully operate from an aircraft carrier and refuel from a tanker.

US Navy's X-47B unmanned jets are heading to museum after 11 years of service
An X-47B taking off from George H.W. Bush in 2013.

In order to build and fly the X-47Bs, the U.S. Army had to implement some significant technological advancements.

In the end, the first X-47B flew in 2011, and by 2015 its two active demonstrators had completed extensive flight and operational integration testing, making them ready for use on the battlefield. It was in August of 2014 that the U.S. Navy announced that it had integrated the X-47B into carrier operations.

Northrop Grumman further stated that “the X-47B UCAS is designed to help the Navy explore the future of unmanned carrier aviation. The successful flight test program is setting the stage for the development of a more permanent, carrier-based fleet of unmanned aircraft.”

US Navy's X-47B unmanned jets are heading to museum after 11 years of service
An X-47B with folded wings.

A mere museum relic

According to The War Zone, the UCAS program "proved to be so successful that many were stunned when the demonstrators weren't given another contract for more testing and risk reduction work even expanding into the tactical realms." So why did the aircraft end up as a museum relic?

It turns out that the aircraft were always intended to become museum exhibits after completing flight testing. Still, they proved so efficient and useful that the Navy later decided to maintain them in flying condition pending further development. Their retirement was partially brought about by officials concerned that the aircraft would be too costly and insufficiently stealthy for operations.

On the bright side, you will soon be able to visit one of these bad boys at one of the two aviation museums where they will be stored.

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