For decades, the US Aircraft Carrier fleet has been hurling planes into the sky with the aid of steam. However, a new generation of ships are about to launch with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). It’s been tested with weights and unmanned drones, but for the first time, a real fighter jet has been launched by the EMALS system on the USS Gerald R. Ford.
The catapults used on most aircraft carriers divert steam from the ship’s nuclear reactor to operate the system. This is a “quick and dirty” way to generate the mechanical power necessary to accelerate a 30,000-pound plane to about 170 miles per hour across just a few hundred feet of runway. The only viable alternatives thus far have been shorter, ramped runways.
If the steam catapults work, why bother developing an expensive electromagnetic version? The roots of today’s steam catapults go back to World War II, but simple doesn’t always mean good. These systems require a lot of maintenance and it’s difficult to tune them to launch smaller aircraft like drones. They also limit ship design — if you ever want to build an aircraft carrier without a nuclear power plant (and some countries are doing just that), you’d need a separate boiler for the catapult. EMALS just needs electric power.
An electromagnetic system, which is a bit like a railgun, has fewer moving parts to replace and service. EMALS also allows for a more gradual acceleration that causes less stress on the aircraft’s components. Although President Trump made some disparaging comments about EMALS earlier this year, the Navy pressed onward with the system on its new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.
EMALS suffered a very public failure in 2015 at the first public demonstration event. The crew was only able to launch the weighted bales after most observers had left. The long development phase seems to have paid off, as the above video demonstrates. An F/A-18 Hornet landed on the USS Gerald R. Ford using a standard arresting wire. After being hooked up the EMALS catapult, the plane successfully shot off the runway and into the sky.
The Navy plans to use the catapult to launch F/A-18 Super Hornets, E2D Hawkeyes, EA-18G Growlers, and small drone aircraft. A further 10 Gerald R. Ford-class carriers are planned, all with EMALS included, but many past carrier classes have been canceled before all were complete. This one ship cost a whopping $ 10.44 billion and took eight years to build. No others are currently in production. The Navy expects the first deployment for the USS Gerald R. Ford to be in or around 2020.