NAVAIR “Magic Carpet” Innovation for the F-18 Fleet


2016-08-15 By Todd Miller

For those of us who are not pilots, we can discuss landing aircraft on aircraft carriers but cannot appreciate just how difficult and fraught with disaster the operation is. Pilots returning from long, mentally exhausting missions are often faced with a night landing in stormy weather, at times perilously low on fuel.

In a previous interview with Cdr. Robert Bibeau (at the time CDR of VFA-31 the Tomcatters), the aviator referenced his first carrier launch:

“As soon as I launched, the very first thing that came to mind was, ‘great, I have to trap now…’”

After many successful traps (Navy verbiage for landing on a carrier) that sense of the challenge ahead wanes, but never disappears.

In a visit to Pax River on Monday the 8th of August 2016, I had a chance to discuss these challenges and ways the Navy is working to improve the situation for the carrier aviator.

James “Buddy” Denham, Senior Engineer of NAVAIR Aeromechanics, puts landing on the carrier in perspective, “landing is not the mission, but it is an outcome of executing the mission from a carrier.”

And learning and then executing landing safely in all weather conditions requires skill and practice.

Prior to deployment on a carrier, a unit will put aside significant time to focus on nothing but honing their carrier landing skills in what is called FCLP (Field Carrier Landing Practice). Due to extensive training, onboard systems and procedures most carrier landings are well within tolerances.

However, there are a percentage of landings that are on the ragged edge of disaster. It is the nature of the activity.

The F-35C was designed from the ground up with new flight control software to attenuate the landing challenges.

This will reduce significantly the amount of time necessary to do carrier training prior to full deployment of a carrier as well.

This opens a gap with the legacy fleet, which NAVAIR is seeking to attenuate with a new technology called Magic Carpet

(Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies).

This technology involves what is effectively a reprogramming of flight controls within a specific landing “Delta Flight Path” mode selected by the pilot.

The reprogrammed flight controls help pilots make more precise landings, with reduced stress on themselves and the airframes.

The development has significance beyond carrier landings, as Denham expresses, “It’s going to change how we fly airplanes across the board.” Denham continued to explain how the technology is enabled by redundant fly by wire systems that utilize digital flight control and the availability of low cost sensors/systems (Inertial Guidance Systems) laser gyros (F/A-18E/F and EA-18G), or tactical navigation sensors (F-35) that complete the feedback loop so the aircraft can give the pilot what they want.

And what does the pilot want?

According to Denham, control of speed and flight path. It is that simple.

All that coordination of stick and rudder, throttles up and down, pitch, yaw, roll – it’s all about the pilot manipulating the aircraft controls to fly a desired flight path and speed.

Without Magic Carpet, the pilot in a legacy carrier aircraft has to do all the mental calculations and manipulate the flight controls to maintain glideslope and speed through to a successful carrier landing.

Each move creates an outcome that must be countered; if too low and the pilot lifts the nose they must increase the throttle to maintain speed, but then they have to drop the nose and decrease the throttle, and adjust AOA; banking left or right to align on center means losing lift, which requires increasing the throttle which means lifting the nose and so on.

The bottom line for the pilot is that the final 18 or so seconds of approach involve a constant manipulation of all controls to get the desired outcome. The window for success is small, and a little excess here or there creates a “spiraling overcorrection effect” – and disaster looms.

In the case of Magic Carpet, the pilot turns in behind the carrier and sets up for landing by engaging Magic Carpets “Delta Flight Path” mode.

The computer understands that this means maintaining a specific speed (auto throttles) and a glideslope of 3 degrees.

Thanks to pilot input, the computer also takes into consideration the carriers cruising speed, and adjusts accordingly to a point of touchdown. The symbology on the Heads Up Display (HUD) changes with the mode to simply reflect an intersect point with the carrier deck (based on the aircrafts current altitude) – and horizontally as it relates to lining up on the center of the landing area.

Once engaged, the Magic Carpets “Delta Flight Path” mode decouples the traditional relationship controls have to pitch, roll and yaw. Rather than move the aircraft up or down through use of the stabilator (all moving tail), the computer rapidly adjusts the flaps to increase or decrease lift. The increase or decrease of lift causes the aircraft to descends or climb relative to the optimal glideslope.

To watch the simulation is impressive, as the flaps move quickly (15 degrees per second on the F/A-18E/F, 60 Degrees per second on the F-35C) and the stabilator adjusts to maintain the correct angle of attack (AOA).

All these split second adjustments are managed by the flight control system reacting to “what the pilot wants.” It is as if the wing and control surfaces were alive, making fine adjustments like the wings of a large bird gliding in to land on water.

Key characteristics of Magic Carpet “Delta Flight Path” mode

The computer “decouples” the controls in such a way that pushing, pulling or moving the stick side to side repositions the aircraft relative to the glideslope with no other impacts on roll, loss of lift, AOA or airspeed that require pilot intervention.

Push the stick forward or pull the stick back until the intersect point is located at the right place on the carrier landing deck, then “release” the stick and the aircraft holds that glideslope to the intersect point automatically.

Move the stick side to side, and the aircraft alignment point moves accordingly left or right without inducing a bank and a loss of lift, and the aircraft holds that alignment automatically.

Auto control of the throttles ensures the correct speed is maintained, and the aircraft is automatically in a 3-degree glideslope, maintaining the desired AOA.

Symbology on the HUD reflects a horizontal line (denoting the intersect of the aircraft with the ship on the computer controlled glideslope), and a designator for alignment to centerline of the landing area. The pilot simply “steers to those points.”

The innovation is entirely aircraft driven, with no dependency on carrier systems. So effective is the system, that it is already deployed on the state of the art F-35, even as the Navy works to upgrade the current Super Hornet (F/A-18E/F) and Growler (EA-18G) fleets. As the attached graphics indicate, the system provides greater landing accuracy to essentially the same degree on both the F/A-18E/F and F-35C, regardless of Carrier or conditions. It simply works.

When I tried it myself – I had a revelation that speaks volumes. With no flying experience (other than a couple hundred of hours 20 years ago as an early sim gamer), I took to the US Navy F/A-18E/F simulator at NAS Patuxent River. Now let me own it, I wanted to make these landings. Not Navy pride, but it was something I had to achieve. Failure was not an option.

First, to landings with Magic Carpet – with some coaching I achieved a successful landing and very little stress (I did make the error of making multiple small adjustments as if Magic Carpet was not engaged, when one should push the stick forward 5 degrees and hold it until the glideslope intersected the carriers deck at the right spot). Move the stick forward or back, left or right – and the aircraft moves with complete stability and no drama. I admit, I expected it to be easy, or the Navy would not have invited a bunch of journalists to try it out!

With two successful Magic Carpet rides under my belt, it was time for the ultimate test, landing without Magic Carpet engaged. I had received a few tips from a Super Hornet pilot (did I mention I really wanted to stick the landing?), and started the approach. I made very careful adjustments; because I knew the instant I pushed too far I would get caught in a death spiral of over correcting. The concentration and intensity required went up 10 fold. Speed, nose up, nose down, alignment, glideslope, adjustment for the ship moving, reacting to the outcome of every adjustment. Totally focused, and very careful in perfect weather – I made my first trap!

On my second approach I pushed the aircraft wide to make it more difficult, and with some effort, got on the deck in one piece (though I would likely would get a “brown” pass on the greenie board – affectionately called a “turd.”). This provided a clear incentive to do better next time. Regardless, I was alive and perhaps there was an empty seat waiting for me at NAS Oceana!

With my pride intact and my goal realized I exited to the control room – and then I felt it. I breathed. My heart rate was way up, and the physical tension or anxiety I felt was significant. I was torqued. And that is the point. What Navy pilots are asked to do in perfect conditions is not easy, and add the dark of night, wind, fog and rain and you get the reality of the situation. What pilots must do to get back on board requires an intensity that only those who have done it can know.

I liken landing without Magic Carpet to walking a balance beam in heels with a 5 gallon bucket of water strapped to your back – and some friend shaking the beam! On the other hand, flying with Magic Carpet in “Delta Flight Path” mode is like walking down the sidewalk in sneakers! It’s not really Magic, but it to an exhausted Navy pilot coming back to ship on a dark night – it may seem like it.

Beyond the details of how Magic Carpet works and the impact it is expected to have on the US Navy, I was left with a broader realization of what NAVAIR engineers have achieved. Technology combined with software is driving innovation that will have a marked impact on flight as we know it in military and commercial environments. It is a sea change in flight driven by available sensors, and the ability to update software, make improvements, and add features.

As we experience innovation and added features with each upgrade of our smart phones operating system, or by the addition of a new app – such is the way forward for the modern weapons platform. The platform must be built with future scalability in mind, and complex software must be exhaustively tested to ensure there are no errors that “crash” critical systems, and there is complete redundancy of all critical systems.

As for Magic Carpet, it has been extensively tested with almost 800 shipborne traps to date.

The data compiled shows that touchdown dispersion decreased from an average of +/- 39 ft from target without Magic Carpet to +/- 18 ft from target when engaged. It is anticipated the approach will reduce wear and tear on aircraft (lower structural loads are evident, fewer harder landings are expected), as well as reduce training requirements. Most importantly, it’ll increase safety and allow pilots to get back on the ship without near the stress. Attached graphics show how the system has improved pilot and landing performance across the board.

Boeing has been contracted to prepare a fully redundant Magic Carpet for the Super Hornet/Growler with fleet launch in 2018-2019.

However, when Navy leadership experienced Magic Carpet for themselves, they insisted that the mode be put on the Super Hornet/Growler fleet as quickly as possible.

Starting in September 2016 units will be able to download the upgrade at their local stations as a simple update and start training and familiarization.

The current system will be introduced as a mode, with no redundancy. In the case of an isolated failure, the pilots will revert back to landing as they always have.

By 2018-19 the fully redundant system will be available, and the Magic Carpet will be the standard landing approach for all F/A-18E/F, EA-18G.

Thanks to Mr. James “Buddy” Denham, Senior Engineer at NAVAIR aeromechanics, NAWCAD Rob Koon Public Affairs & Michael Land, PEO(T) for their time and efforts during my visit.

Editor’s Note: With regard to the F-35C, the integrated helmet and software solution sets have already set the standard for where Magic Carpet is working to upgrade the F-18 fleet with regard to carrier landings.

In an interview at Pax River earlier this year with experienced naval aviators now flying the F-35C the landing and related training issues were discussed.

The “Magic Carpet” is already onboard the F-35 as Delta Flight Path (DFP) system.

In fact, the same engineer who designed DFP also has designed Magic Carpet.

Question: Carrier landings are challenging. 

They are dangerous and require a lot of training to get them right and to enhance the safety of the pilot, the crews, and the ship. 

In fact, during the Vietnam War, there were tests done of carrier pilots’ heart rates which we actually higher when landing on a carrier than when being shot at over Hanoi. 

How does the F-35 affect the landing challenges associated with trap and cat operations?

Answer: The plane flies very well.

The flying qualities are excellent and the machine systems built into the plane significantly enhance the ease of landing and taking off from the carrier.

Basically with the F-35 you get your mission cross-check time back.

Normally once you start the approach your scan is solely meatball, line up, and angle of attack. Your mission cross-check time behind the ship is zero because you’re just doing that scan.

With the F-35 and its enhanced flight controls and superb handling, the aircraft doesn’t deviate much from the desired flight path, which greatly eases the workload on the ball and frees up your scan.

It almost makes flying the ball a relaxing task.

Question: Ease of flying can clearly translate not just into safety but training time. 

What do you see as the impact? 

Answer: Before you go to the boat, everything stops in the squadron.

All training stops two to three weeks where all you’re doing is banging left-hand turns.

No one is doing any tactical training.

Everyone’s bandwidth is concerned with how they are landing at the ship.

Once you’ve been out on the ship for a few days and the landings are looking better, then finally you can start working on what we want to work on again tactically.

Where you’ve just taken a pause from all your tactical performance for the past nearly month, that’s going to go away with the F-35, which will allow you to be dedicated to your tactical performance.

Question: Clearly, the Super Hornet is an excellent airplane, but the F-35 is a very different aircraft with a different approach to air system operations. 

How do you see the F-35 affecting tactical training? 

Answer: With the current air wing (i.e, with the Super Hornet and Hornet as the tip of the spear), we are wringing out our tactics for a tactical advantage, which is also, at the same time, at the edge of the envelope for survival.

We are spending a lot of time making sure that we have the right tactics and the mastery of those tactics by pilots to survive and succeed.

It is about keeping a level of competence and capability where you’re not going to die.

There are points where you have a twenty second window.

You miss that window and you might be blown up.

When you’re traveling at those speeds, we are talking really only a couple of seconds that you have.

And, if you’re not performing tactics exactly as they’re prescribed, you put yourself in a kill zone.

With the F-35, we are jumping a generation in tactics and now looking at the expanded battlespace where we can expand our impact and effect.

You need to take a generational leap so we are the ones not playing catch up with our adversaries.