Navy testing out electromagnetic fighter jet launch system

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

The US Navy is preparing to use a new, electromagnetic system to launch jet fighters that will replace the steam-powered catapults used by the military for more than six decades.

The system is known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), and according to Engadget, the next-generation instrument has been equipped to the USS Gerald R. Ford after recently undergoing a successful series of land trials.

Unlike the steam catapults, which had a jerky motion that added unwelcome wear-and-tear to both the jets and the pilots, the website explained that the electromagnetic energy used by the EMALS system ensures a smooth launch of aircraft at precise speeds.

Not only does the new system guard against aircraft stress, it is adaptable enough to be used by a variety of different aircraft and in a vast array of different launch conditions. EMALS is also said to be well suited for lightweight unmanned aircraft currently used on US carriers.

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Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, Program Executive Officer of the Navy’s carrier program, told Defense Tech that they plan to start launching “dead loads” into the James River in Virginia. When that happens, it will mark the first time in 60 years that something besides a steam catapult will be used to fire an aircraft off the bow of an American naval vessel.

Moore added that the first EMALS system has been under construction for several years, and that two of them have already been “completely built.” The other two are nearing completion. Below-deck EMALS equipment, including a series of transformers and rectifiers that were designed to convert and store electrical power, have already been installed, he added.

How does it work?

The power travels through several motor generators before arriving at the launch motors on the catapults, Moore said. Unlike the pressurized steam, piston, and launch valve used by old-style catapults, the new system uses a precise amount of electrical energy designed to provide a smooth launch, minimizing stress and reducing the need for maintenance.

“By having this electrical pulse come down, you are pulling the aircraft down to the catapult to launch it. You can dial in the precise weight of the aircraft. As you accelerate the aircraft down the catapult, you can accelerate it to the precise speed it needs to launch,” the admiral explained. “By the time the aircraft gets to the catapult it is at the right speed.”

The EMALS launch system will be designed so that any of the four catapults on the ship will be able to draw power from any of the three energy storage groups on the ship, he added. The system is also undergoing extensive testing at a Naval Air Warfare Center facility in New Jersey, which Moore said will help them “identify issues in advance of installing it on the ships.”

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The current plan is to use EMALS to launch F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, E2D Advanced Hawkeyes, and other craft aboard Ford-class ships. It has also been tested with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at the New Jersey location.

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