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Navy launches new catapult for aircraft carriers

December 22, 2010 |  7:45 am

For more than a half-century, the U.S. Navy has gotten fighter planes airborne off an aircraft carrier by using steam-powered catapults.

But the Navy proved over the weekend that may soon change. 

For the first time, the Navy successfully sent off an F/A-18 fighter in a test at a naval station in Lakehurst, N.J., using an innovative new electromagnetically powered launch system.

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, dubbed EMALS, is designed for future aircraft carriers and is expected to supply 30% more launch power, slinging everything from heavy fighters to smaller drones into flight. The government has said EMALS "lowers overall operating costs and reduces maintenance over current steam systems."

Current catapults generate power by piping water through onboard nuclear reactors. The steam builds up and propels a piston that’s attached to the nose gear of aircraft down a track. (Remember the thick clouds sweeping across the deck in "Top Gun"?) 

The system involves pumps, motors and hydraulics. The military says a lot can go wrong and it’s pricey to maintain.

EMALS, on the other hand, has fewer moving parts, using a motor that energizes a series of electromagnets that thrust a jet down the track.

The system is built by General Atomics, the San Diego-based company that builds Predator and Reaper killer drones. It recently signed a $676-million contract to build and deliver the system for the yet-to-be finished U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford in 2011.

RELATED:

The changing face of aerial reconnaissance 

A flying Humvee? Don't scoff, Pentagon wants one 

Boeing wins Pentagon contract to build a solar-powered drone that can stay aloft for five years

--W.J. Hennigan

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