Flight control software to help pilots stick landings aboard carrier decks

October 20, 2011
An F/A-18C Hornet assigned to the Blue Diamonds of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 146 lands aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). In 2012, pilots will begin testing new flight control software, funded in part by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), intended to guide aircraft landings on Navy carrier decks with unprecedented accuracy. The algorithm, when added to existing flight control software, ties movement of the flight control surfaces to the pilot’s control stick, has been incorporated into an F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet flight simulator. Credit: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyle Carlstrom/Released

Select pilots in early 2012 will commence testing new flight control software, funded in part by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), intended to facilitate aircraft landings on Navy carrier decks with unprecedented accuracy.

"The precision that we can bring to carrier landings in the future will be substantial," said Michael Deitchman, deputy chief of naval research for naval air warfare and . "The flight has the potential to alter the next 50 years of how pilots land on carrier decks."

Navy and Marine Corps aviators conducting carrier landings today line up with a moving in a complicated process. They must constantly adjust their speed and manipulate the aircraft's surfaces—ailerons, rudders and elevators—to maintain the proper glide path and alignment to the flight deck for an arrested landing. Throughout their approach, pilots eye a set of lights—known as the fresnel lens—located on the left side of the ship. It signals whether they are coming in too high or too low.

The new algorithm embedded in the flight control software augments the landing approach. Coupled with an experimental shipboard light system called a Bedford Array and accompanying cockpit heads-up display symbols, the software ties the movement of the pilot's control stick directly to the aircraft's flight path. Instead of constantly adjusting the plane's trajectory indirectly through attitude changes, the pilot maneuvers the aircraft to project a dotted green line in the heads-up display over a target light shining in the landing area.

"It is almost like a video game," said James "Buddy" Denham, the senior engineer who has been leading the research and development efforts at Naval Air Systems Command. "You're tracking a shipboard stabilized visual target with a flight path reference, and the airplane knows what it needs to do to stay there."

ONR funded the project as part of its focus on sea-based aviation, one of five Navy and Marine Corps research areas designated as a National Naval Responsibility.

The software has been incorporated into an F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet flight simulator. Researchers plan to conduct a study with U.S. Navy pilots and U.K. Royal Navy pilots who will fly the simulator to obtain data on workload reduction and touchdown performance. Once the results are tabulated, the engineers plan to integrate the refined algorithm onto an actual aircraft for flight tests and demonstrations.

If the tests are successful, the software could be integrated aboard current and future aircraft to change the way carrier-based aviators have landed aboard ships for more than half a century—controlled crash landings. Increasing the precision of landings will boost pilot safety and reduce training requirements necessary to perfect carrier-landing skills. It could lower aircraft life cycle costs by reducing maintenance and avoiding repairs caused by hard landings.

Explore further: Researchers examine new approaches for aircraft operations aboard carriers

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1 / 5 (3) Oct 20, 2011
This is nothing new. The Navy has already landed semi-autonomous UAVs on aircraft carriers. So, someone is uploading some additional code and a bit of new hardware to the F-18. More of a "maintenance" action than new tech.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2011
While the official name is "Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System" most just call it the meatball. As for this system, well, we'll see how the pilots react to "reduce training requirements necessary to perfect carrier-landing skills." After all, they pride themselves on being the best. I wouldn't be surprised if this system was relegated to full-time autonomous aircraft only.
1 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2011
I can see the downside to this. With combat air crafts, sooner or latter some of them are going to be shot to hell. Without these advanced software aids, pilots of the old school may make it back to the deck more or less in one piece, whereas the new video boys pilots will either punch out or getting killed trying to land. It doesn't matter how extensive their training is, the pressure of doing it right for real the first time will be great. Ever see a driver who know the basics of stick shifting but has always driven auto, doing it for the first time in a stick shift car?
not rated yet Oct 21, 2011
Even if they are trained to fall back on older techniques, to maintain proficiency means they would have to practice carrier landings without the new tech regularly, incurring damages to the aircrafts as of now. So, 90% neat and precise, 10% write offs and obituaries.
not rated yet Oct 21, 2011
I'm wondering if the article was even read by some of the commenters. This isn't a technology for any sort of automated landing, it's a technology which provides different (and more accurate) feedback to the pilot, which they can use *in addition to* the existing feedback systems, so that they can make their manual landing.

This looks to me to be a natural evolution from the old semaphore system to the fresnel lens meatball and now to a target glide path in the HUD. They're getting better at providing more useful feedback to the pilot as to where he needs to fly in order to land himself/herself safely.
not rated yet Oct 21, 2011
Temple, you must have a read a different article. The article above is, quite specifically, in regards to a technology for an automated landing. Semi-automated at this point, seeing as how the pilot still has his hand on the stick for override, but it's just a start.

From the article:
1. "...the software ties the movement of the pilot's control stick directly to the aircraft's flight path."
2. "It is almost like a video game,"
3. "...the airplane knows what it needs to do to stay there."

This would be the actual definition of automation. As opposed to the current manual approach.

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