Phantom Ray Drone Makes Its First Flight, A Piggyback Ride On A Shuttle-Carrier 747

And PopSci was there to watch
RMS# 187548 Phantom Ray and NASA 747 Test Flight from Lambert Airport. Ron Bookout

ST. LOUIS — Boeing’s newest spy drone, the Phantom Ray, got its first taste of the air Monday while hitching a ride on a 747 designed to ferry the space shuttle. It was a first for the drone, which is a test bed for advanced UAV technologies, but it was also a big day for NASA, which proved it can find new uses for space shuttle technologies after the shuttles retire.

The shuttle carrier aircraft, dubbed SCAs, had never hauled anything other than the shuttle orbiters. Boeing approached NASA last December and asked to borrow one of the planes, and NASA managers — who have denied previous requests — decided to do it, according to Jill Brigham, a NASA project manager based at Johnson Space Center.

“Initially, NASA management was not going to allow such a unique asset to be used. But with the shuttle program ending, they were more willing to use the aircraft for other tasks,” she said. “This proves that we can do this, we can use the SCA post-shuttle program.”

The 747 arrived at Boeing’s St. Louis facilities Tuesday, Dec. 7. Two days later, workers used a crane to pluck the tiny Phantom Ray drone off a flatbed trailer and swing it up onto the 747. A crane on the plane’s other side carefully set it down onto a special adaptor designed by Boeing structural engineer Randy DeVore. The process took about 12 hours in 15-mph winds, DeVore said.

Phantom Ray is a flying delta wing descended from Boeing Phantom Works’s X-45C demonstrator aircraft, and like its predecessor, it will be used to demonstrate the newest technologies available for autonomous aircraft. Just 36 feet long with a 50-foot wingspan, it will be able to carry a light payload around 4,000 pounds. It will cruise at 40,000 feet, reaching speeds of 614 mph — making it one of the fastest drones on record. Its unusual shape also allows it to evade radar.

It could be used for surveillance and reconnaissance, offensive capabilities like electronic jamming and seek-and-destroy missions, and even autonomous aerial refueling — those uses will be up to the military, according to project manager Craig Brown.

Boeing workers came up with the name Phantom Ray in a contest. It looks like a manta ray, and the name Phantom is in honor of Phantom Works, Brown said.

Beginning in January, Boeing will test the aircraft’s capabilities at Edwards Air Force Base in California, but first it has to ship it there. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t allow unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace, so flying it there wasn’t an option. Boeing considered putting it on a barge and sending it down the Mississippi River from St. Louis, but that would entail taking it apart, and would have added months of delays before testing could begin. So last year, Boeing asked NASA for a ride.

As part of the deal, Boeing had to come up with an adaptor that could fit the tiny drone where the 122-foot-long shuttle orbiter normally sits. DeVore designed a support system that sat far back on the 747’s fuselage, behind the wings, which reduced the amount of material required. NASA just had to loan the 747 and its pilots, chief pilot Jeff Moultrie and pilot Jack “Triple” Nickel. Monday’s test was intended to prove Phantom Ray will make the trip to California in one piece.

Lambert Airport, where the test took place, has a storied aviation history of its own. Theodore Roosevelt took off from Lambert Field Oct. 11, 1910, becoming the first president to fly. While working for Robertson Airlines, Charles Lindbergh flew airmail from Lambert Field, and local legend says he got the courage to fly solo across the Atlantic after he braved St. Louis’ infamously bad weather.

Boeing officials hope they will be able to analyze flight data Tuesday and send the Phantom Ray to Edwards Air Force Base by Wednesday — if the weather cooperates.