Forget ‘God-Damned Steam,’ the U.S. Navy’s Digital Catapult Actually Works
First fighter launches from USS 'Gerald R. Ford'
On July 28, 2017, a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter became the first fixed-wing airplane to land on and launch from the Navy’s new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.
The Super Hornet belonged to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23, based at Patuxent River in Maryland. Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Struck, call sign “Coach,” flew the two-seat fighter on the historic sortie.
The launch in particular is significant because, until recently, the Navy wasn’t sure Ford‘s catapult would work properly. The July 28 takeoff could help to restore some confidence in the system. “I get chills when I think of the millions of hours of work it took to engineer, develop and manufacture this ship and its revolutionary systems,” Struck said in a Navy release.
Ford is the first carrier to feature an electromagnetic catapult instead of a traditional steam catapult. The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System is more compact, reliable and flexible than the older-style catapult design is.
“The launching system is designed to expand the operational capability of Ford-class carriers, providing the Navy with capability for launching all current and future carrier air wing platforms — lightweight unmanned to heavy strike fighters,” the Navy explained in a release.
But in 2014, the Navy discovered that EMALS, designed by General Atomics, puts too much stress on warplanes in their heaviest configurations — including Super Hornets carrying external fuel tanks.
Pres. Donald Trump famously mocked EMALS. “It sounded bad to me,” Trump said during a May 2017 speech aboard Ford. “Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out.”
“And I said — and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be — ‘Sir, we’re staying with digital.’ I said, ‘No you’re not. [We’re] going to God-damned steam,’ the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.”
But the Navy stood by EMALS. “We were confident since the day that the issue was uncovered that it was solvable,” George Sulich, EMALS integrated program team lead, said in a Navy release. “The beauty of the system is that issues such as these can be accomplished with software updates instead of major hardware changes to machinery.”
Sure enough, the Navy tweaked EMALS’s software and conducted 71 test launches on land with VX-23 Super Hornets carrying 480-gallon fuel tanks under their wings. The tests proved the fighter “can launch without exceeding stress limits on the aircraft,” the Navy reported on July 24, 2017.
Four days later, the Super Hornet launched from Ford. That takeoff involved an F/A-18F without wing tanks — in other words, in a light configuration. The Navy plans on waiting until 2019 — when Ford will be preparing for her first deployment — to update the ship’s EMALS with the newly-written code allowing heavier launches.