By Andrea Watters
F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler pilots across the fleet are conducting pre-deployment workups using the Navy’s revolutionary aircraft carrier landing software—Magic Carpet—with great success and several years ahead of schedule.
That was the smoothest night trap I’ve ever flown, send me up again,” said Lt. Zach “Bamboo” Hutchings, Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8.
Last fall, air wings began training with Magic Carpet—the Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies—and Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) are witnessing improved performance at a much lower pilot workload.
Renamed Precision Landing Modes (PLM) by aircrew, it provides improved safety, efficiency and success rates in recovering fixed-wing aircraft on board aircraft carriers while easing pilot workload, improves overall boarding rates, creates the potential to reduce tanker requirements and improves Naval Aviation’s effectiveness.
Lt. Jaime “Eeyore” Moreno, CVW-8 Paddles, the shipboard term for Landing Signal Officers, is currently certifying pilots using PLM aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) as they prepare for deployment.
“PLM is probably the biggest advancement to carrier aviation since the IFLOLS was installed,” Moreno said. Deployed on all carriers by 2004, IFLOLS—the improved Fresnel lens optical landing system—is a stack of 12 light cells, which produce a single ball-shaped image used by carrier pilots to determine the glideslope as they approach the carrier to land.
“Every aircraft is continually on glideslope with a stable and predictable energy state. Ultimately, this makes landing at the aircraft carrier safer,” said Lt. Greg “Cinder” Blok, CVW-8 Paddles.
As part of the early software release, the fleet is giving Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) engineers operational feedback in both the flight control modes and the head-up display.
“Now we have the opportunity to incorporate desired enhancements for the final software release scheduled in fiscal 2019,” said James “Buddy” Denham, a NAVAIR senior aeromechanics engineer. NAVAIR engineering developed the flight control algorithms and new head-up display symbology.
In October, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 2 was the first to conduct Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX) aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) with PLM.
In November, Carrier Air Wing 11 conducted Tailored Ship’s Training Availability (TSTA) using PLM aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68), and now CVW-8 is training with PLM.
Pilot experience has been positive across the fleet so far. Roughly 35 eligible fleet pilots flew PLM aboard CVN 77, and found little to no difference in day and night flights.
“Flying at night on the first PLM would have been fine, although we started with day flights,” said Lt. Zach Pleis, CVW-11 Paddles. “I think it went better than our [Powered Approach Control Augmentation System] players because PLM pilots are developing habit patterns of flying a centered ball vice bumping it up,” which is the desired outcome.
Flight Test Background
Magic Carpet was first tested at sea in April 2015, when Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 pilots and Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) aeromechanics division engineers from Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, demonstrated the software aboard CVN 77.
The demonstration was so successful that Naval Aviation Enterprise leadership directed NAVAIR to deliver an initial capability earlier than fiscal 2019.
To meet that demand, engineers made minor changes to the flight control system based on CVN 77 results and delivered an initial capability that provides the control modes but does not have the full redundancy planned for the fiscal 2019 release. The program office expedited a revision to the mission system software to provide the head-up display symbols tailored for shipboard landing tasks. The program office set September 2016 as the initial production delivery target.
The upgraded flight control software and head-up displays were tested in ground-based labs during March 2016, clearing the software for flight test in April, and from May through June, shore-based flight test was conducted.
In June, well ahead of schedule, the fleet-production release software was tested aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73).
VX-23, NAWCAD engineers and industry partner Boeing engineers conducted the full matrix of tests including more than 600 touch-and-go landings and arrestments, off-nominal approach conditions, low and high wind over deck and asymmetric store loadings on the F/A-18E/F and E/A-18G—the three approach parameters involved in landing on an aircraft carrier.
“All results showed benefits in touchdown dispersion reduction of more than 50 percent when compared to current landing control techniques,” Denham said. Touchdown dispersions refer to the differences between the actual and ideal landing points.
The small test team returned to Patuxent River to develop changes to Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) and created academic lessons to train the fleet on how to use these new augmented control modes. With the rapid development over the previous year, the fleet operational trainers were about a year behind in adding these new flight control software and displays into the training devices.
To fill the gap, NAVAIR engineers developed the Magic Carpet RIDE-or Rapid Instruction Desktop Environment-using commercial-off-the-shelf displays and high-end game stick and throttles, Denham said. NAVAIR developed and deployed the trainers in four months, delivering five Magic Carpet RIDE trainers to NAS Lemoore, NAS Whidbey Island, NAS Oceana, and will deliver the final trainer to CVW-5 in Atsugi, Japan, in early February.
By 2019, the fleet’s Super Hornet and E-18G Growler squadrons will have the full capability.
Andrea Watters is the editor of Naval Aviation News magazine