The future is here: EMALS launches F-35

Two great navies breathe a little easier as two key systems show they can play nice together.

The twin pillars of tomorrow’s naval aviation both work, and they work together, the Navy says.

The Navy catapulted an F-35C into the air using its new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System for the first time on Nov. 18, the service announced Monday.  Although EMALS has thrown other Navy jets into the sky, the C’s takeoff proves that the service’s two big technological bets are paying off, its statement said.

And there are even bigger implications, per Naval Air Systems Command:

Testing the F-35C on EMALS provided an early opportunity to evaluate technical risks and began the process to integrate the carrier variant Joint Strike Fighter with the future carrier fleet aircraft launching system. “The test flight went well,” said Navy test pilot Lt. Christopher Tabert. “It felt very similar to the steam test launches we did this summer [in the F-35C]. It was quite an honor for me to play a small part in our launch today.”

This summer, the F-35C test team completed more than 50 steam catapult launches to perform an initial structural survey and collected steam ingestion data. The steam ingestion data produced robust results, allowing a reduction in the number of test launches by four. Along with the steam launch data, the EMALS launch testing also provided information for the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence as the UK proceeds with including EMALS in the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier.

In the past 12 months, the EMALS team launched a T-45 Goshawk, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, a C-2A Greyhound and several F/A-18 aircraft with and without stores.

That’s right: EMALS is the key to the future of aviation in not one, but two great navies — when the British switched their order from F-35Bs to Cs, they also became dependent on the success of the U.S. Navy’s electromagnetic catapults. In fact, you could argue the Royal Navy has an even greater need for EMALS, given that its Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers won’t be built with steam propulsion.

The first Navy carrier to get EMALS, the USS Gerald R. Ford, was not designed with the steam system it would need in case EMALS didn’t materialize — and this has caused no shortage of anxiety among carrier-watchers over the past few years. But in a worst case scenario, although it would’ve been painful and expensive, the Ford could have been modified to accept steam cats. Nuclear propulsion is steam propulsion anyway, so engineers could have more or less copied the configuration of the earlier Nimitz-class flattops.

The Queen Elizabeth, however, will use gas turbines, meaning there’s no steam aboard either for propulsion or for the flight deck. So if EMALS continues to work as advertised, that means the U.S. and the U.K. will be able to go forward with their existing designs.

Despite this milestone, however, neither program is free and clear. Washington and London could delay or even cancel the programs in the face of their respective defense crunches, and even if the ships survive, making EMALS work aboard and at sea could be a whole other set of hurdles to jump.

What’s that? Of course we have video of EMALS launching the F-35C — check it out over at DefenseTech.

UPDATE: We’d heard at the time that the first F-35C EMALS launch didn’t go initially as scheduled, but Navy spokesman Victor Chen told Buzz on Monday that there was nothing nefarious about the delay. Here’s what he said:

“Initial fit checks required a relatively simple adjustment to the launch bar, which was completed, but not in time to meet crew day requirements. Adverse weather then postponed the launch until the next possible day, Nov. 18. It’s important to note that JSF testing was not originally included in the aircraft compatibility test schedule for EMALS, but the testing of the F-35C presented an early opportunity to test both the aircraft and the launcher.”