Boeing’s sleek fighter-size Phantom Ray unmanned stealth jet took to the air for the first time Tuesday atop the NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a modified Boeing 747, for a test flight. The 50-minute flight at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis was conducted in preparation for the Phantom Ray’s transport aboard the SCA to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., later this week, weather permitting.
“This is exciting not just because it’s the first time that an aircraft other than the space shuttle has flown on the SCA, but also because it puts Phantom Ray that much closer to making its first flight,” said Craig Brown, the Phantom Ray program manager for Boeing.
Once the Phantom Ray arrives at Dryden, it will undergo ground and high-speed taxi tests in preparation for its first flight early next year.
The 36-foot-long aircraft, which will serve as a test bed for advanced technologies, recently completed its taxi tests. With its 614 mph (0.8 Mach) cruising speed, operating altitude of 40,000 feet and 50-foot wingspan, the 36,5000-pound Phantom Ray advances the state of the art for unmanned aircraft. The bat-shaped flying wing has a combat radius of 1,200 nautical miles.
The aircraft was designed and developed by Boeing Phantom Works based on the X-45C prototype the company created a decade ago for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)/U.S. Air Force/U.S. Navy Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program.
The Phantom Works is Boeing’s own “skunk works” whose mission is to “build near-operational prototypes to get airplanes flying to meet customer demands more quickly,” Chris Haddock, a communications officer in Phantom Works, told TechNewsDaily. Near operational means that not every possible system or design is onboard, he said. “It’s an 80 percent solution.”