80 years after launching the first drone from an aircraft carrier, the US Navy plans to fill its flattops with it

An MQ-25 aboard the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush in December 2021.US Navy/MCS3 Hillary Becke

  • The US Navy is investing heavily in unmanned aircraft to operate aboard its aircraft carriers.

  • Navy officials now say they hope drones will make up 60% of their air wings.

  • Eighty years ago, the Navy made its first attempt to operate drones aboard its aircraft carriers.

The US Navy is working hard to integrate unmanned aircraft into its air fleet. Service officials now say they are aiming for drones to make up 60% of their air wings, a huge increase from the 40% target cited in the past.

Leading that effort is Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray, an unmanned aerial refueling drone that Navy officials say could eventually take on new roles, such as intelligence gathering.

The MQ-25 is expected to reach initial operational capability by September 2025 and deploy aboard an aircraft carrier in 2026.

It will be the first purpose-built carrier-based drone in service with any navy, but it won’t be the first drone the U.S. Navy will operate from a flattop.

This distinction belongs to the Naval Aircraft Factory TDN-1, which on August 10, 1943 became the first US Navy drone to take off from an aircraft carrier.

The first carrier drone

Naval Aircraft Factory TDN-1 attack drone

A TDN-1 drone on its first piloted flight over Traverse City, Michigan on May 19, 1943.US Navy

Unmanned vehicles were not a new concept in the 1940s.

The US Navy had even been using radio-controlled target ships for gunnery and bombardment training for over a decade. With the evolution of radio and television technology, unmanned aircraft were also becoming a reality.

The TDN-1 was designed by the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF), a Navy-owned company established during World War I that manufactured aircraft exclusively for the Navy.

In January 1942, shortly after the United States officially entered World War II, the NAF was tasked with creating an unmanned aircraft capable of carrying bombs and torpedoes and being deployed on carriers. planes.

A month later, the NAF prototype was approved for production.

Naval Aircraft Factory TDN-1 aircraft carrier drone USS Sable

A TDN-1 drone aboard the US Navy training carrier USS Sable off Traverse City on August 10, 1943.US Navy

The prototype was about 37 feet long and had a wingspan of 48 feet. It could be controlled from a ground station or from another aircraft flying nearby. (The aircraft that accompanied it could control multiple TDN-1s at once.) It also had a cockpit if a human pilot was needed.

It was mostly wooden, carried a nose-mounted camera, and had radio control equipment in a fuselage compartment aft of the cockpit. It could carry a single 2,000 pound bomb or torpedo or two smaller bombs instead.

The United States Navy ordered 100 TDN-1s, which were designated “assault drones”, in March 1942. On August 10, three TDN-1s made history when they took off from the training aircraft carrier USS Sable in Lake Michigan.

The first TDN-1 lifted off after a steeper-than-usual takeoff. The second TDN-1 had an even steeper takeoff angle, causing it to stall and crash into the water. The takeoff of the third TBN-1 was a complete success.

The first and third drones were able to land at a nearby base.

Naval Aircraft Factory TDN-1 aircraft carrier drone USS Sable

A TDN-1 drone takes off from the USS Sable off Traverse City on August 10, 1943.US Navy

On October 31, 1944, six Special Air Task Force TDN-1s made history again when they were air-launched from the escort carrier USS Charger.

Ultimately, the TDN-1 was never deployed. The technology proved too complicated and expensive for mass production and the project was cancelled. Many of the remaining TND-1s were later used as target drones instead.

The TDN-1 did, however, influence the design of the Interstate TDR-1 assault drone, which saw limited use with the Navy in the Pacific before the end of the war.

The line

US Navy sailors operate an MQ-25 on an aircraft carrier

Sailors send instructions to an MQ-25 using arm-mounted consoles aboard USS George HW Bush in December 2021.US Navy/MCS3 Brandon Roberson

Eight decades later, the Navy is again trying to integrate fixed-wing drones into its air wings.

The MQ-25 is designed to carry 15,000 pounds of fuel approximately 500 nautical miles, allowing it to extend the operating range of an F/A-18 by approximately 300 miles and freeing up other aircraft, usually F/A-18s, which are normally assigned to air-to-air refueling duties.

The drone demonstrated the ability to refuel friendly aircraft, perform manned and unmanned pairing tests, and undergo deck handling tests at sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush, although it has not yet landed or taken off from an aircraft carrier.

The MQ-25 T1 refuels the F-35

An MQ-25 test aircraft, left, refuels an F-35 over Illinois in September 2021.US Navy/Boeing

In September, Boeing announced that the MQ-25 and its ground control station had demonstrated the ability to work with an F/A-18 fighter, a P-8A maritime patrol aircraft and an E command and control aircraft. -2D on surveillance missions during a virtual demonstration last spring.

MQ-25 testing also informs the Navy’s understanding of how future drones will work with combat aircraft and operate aboard an aircraft carrier as well as how the Stingray ground control station , which has an operator, will control other Navy drones, service officials said. Aviation Week at the Tailhook Association Symposium in September.

These officials also pointed to the new goal of unmanned aircraft accounting for 60% of the air wing.

As the MQ-25 comes online and sailors “become more proficient” with it, “we will then increase the higher percentage of unmanned within the carrier’s air wing to play several different roles,” Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford, the Navy’s program director for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, told Inside Defense in September.

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