Landing an aircraft on a moving vessel requires a particular kind of precision and know-how that very few human beings can execute with significant technological support. Believe it or not, one psychological test observed that the stress landing on a carrier causes pilots more stress than what troops experience in combat. No wonder cleanly landing on a carrier is a source of pride for pilots.
The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush arrives for a of four-day stop in the harbour of Marseille, southern France, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. The vessel took part in the mission Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State group in Iraq. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)
So F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler pilots are practice landing on the USS Washington (CVN 73) with a fascinating new landing system called Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies, or "MAGIC CARPET" for short. (They must have really wanted to use that acronym.)
The system takes on many of the stressful aspects of aircraft carrier landing, like having to gauge the course of landing with the moving ship and all of the things the pilot has to consider while doing it, such as adding and reducing power, adjusting the pitch, yaw and roll, as USNI News explains. Instead, the pilot simply controls the flight path.
And because the Navy's Boeing F/A-18E/F's all have digital flight controls, Magic Carpet makes that function for the pilot even easier.
Consequently, the system improves safety and efficiency for the pilots, taking much of the stress of landing off the pilot and putting it on the system. To be sure, as Breaking Defence puts it, the pilot is still in control. But, with Magic Carpet, he or she has a lot of help:
It's rather like the old saying about swans. They seem smooth and graceful as they swim, but below the surface there's a great deal of frantic paddling. With Magic Carpet, the computer is doing that paddling, constantly making tiny adjustments — faster and more precisely than any human could manage — to keep the aircraft on the pilot's desired course.
In a further birdlike touch, a Super Hornet using Magic Carpet constantly flexes its control surfaces, making the wing look like it's rippling. "If you ever watch a bird," said Denham, "he's modulating lift… to decel(erate) and control which limb he's going to grab onto…warping and changing the whole wing." Such "Direct Lift Control" has been tried before, starting decades ago, but without automation, it often proved too complicated for human pilots to keep track of.
When Magic Carpet is switched on, the pilot no longer directly controls the flaps, throttle, and so on. Instead, he or she chooses a path and the computer makes the fine adjustments to get and stay on it. Affecting one aspect of flight — angle, speed, alignment, and so on — still affects the others, but the pilot can focus on one at a time while the computer keeps the others under control. The pilot remains a crucial part of the system.
And Navy Aviation News spoke with a Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) official who spoke wonders of Magic Carpet:
"All results showed benefits in touchdown dispersion reduction of more than 50 per cent when compared to current landing control techniques," said James "Buddy" Denham, a NAVAIR senior aeromechanics engineer. Touchdown dispersions refer to the differences between the actual and ideal landing points.
The system is expected to be released in 2019. In fact, the Naval Aviation Enterprise leadership told NAVAIR to deliver the system as is earlier than that because it performed so well.
Of course, all of the features set to be on the final version of the system are not complete. But this will actually give pilots, who renamed the system Precision Landing Modes (PLM), more time to experiment with it and pass on suggestions to improve Magic Carpet before the final software is released.
Which works out for the service because they will likely lead to fewer dangerous landings — and less stressed out pilots.