Steel-jawed ex-Navy Top Guns may be disappointed to learn about the plan to fully automate aircraft carrier deck landings, in the interest of safety and efficiency. After all, surely, deck landings are pretty straightforward: you just fly the arrester hook hanging out behind your F-14 or F/A-18 through an imaginary three-foot-square box located 14 ft above the stern, and you’re virtually home. You then simply place the hook onto the deck, halfway between the second and third arrester wires (there are four of them across the deck, 40 ft apart) and you’re there. You stay on the centerline, of course, because airplanes are parked 20 ft either side of your wingtips. And you also keep an eye on the deck, because it’s pitching and rolling below you as you’re doing all this. Otherwise, there’s nothing to it.
But Navy planners have a better idea. They are currently refining the future joint precision approach and landing system (JPALS)–the military’s equivalent of the FAA’s GPS-based LAAS–to turn it into the centerpiece of a totally datalinked communications, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management (CNS/ATM) environment out to 200 nm around each carrier. Imagine a shoreside ARTCC, and its radars and other services, shoehorned into a ship. But with one slight difference–all launches and landings will be fully automated, as will the planned 4-D arrival trajectories, in all weather and sea states, day or night.
Landing guidance will employ advanced GPS technology, accurate to 15 centimeters, coupled with automatic compensation for carrier deck movement from the ship’s inertial system. All communications will be via controller/pilot datalinks (CPDL) over highly secure UHF frequencies, with any voice transmissions digitally synthesized. This levels the playing field for the other local airspace occupants, those being the unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) that the Navy also intends to use.
By 2025 all carriers and aircraft should be equipped under the Navy’s estimated $1.1 billion program. Then, alas, it’s farewell to that picturesque naval aviation buzzword–the “bolter.” That’s an airplane that makes a go-around after its arrester hook misses the wires. After 2025, automation won’t allow it. At least that’s what the planners say.