The X-44A is being unveiled to the public there as part of the Skunk Works’ 75th anniversary.
Lockheed Martin has unveiled a small UAV that was used by the Skunk Works to investigate the stability and control of a stealthy, arrow-shaped design.
The X-44A first flew in 2001 and was followed by two larger UAV developments, one of which was revealed 12 years ago, and another which remains classified. The company is preparing to reveal details of its entry for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 unmanned carrier-borne aircraft, which have been closely held until now.
The X-44A made its public debut last weekend as a static display at the LA County Airshow, held at Fox Field, Lancaster, California. This is near the Skunk Works headquarters at Palmdale. The organization is celebrating its 75th anniversary and was the show’s major sponsor. The X-44A was previously shown internally to company employees at Palmdale and Fort Worth.
The shadowy aircraft’s designation is outright confusing as the X-44 “Manta” is largely known as a program that aimed to test a tailless manned aircraft design that emanated from the same period of time. This notional aircraft would use thrust vectoring for primary flight control, with the objective being to realize new speed, fuel efficiency, and maneuverability capabilities with such a design, as well as to demonstrate simpler and cheaper forms of aircraft structures production.
This program, which aimed to prove rapid manufacturing technologies and penetrating aerial reconnaissance capabilities, as well as the aerodynamic validity of a relatively small, tailless, swept-wing drone, was dubbed the X-44A and first took to the skies in 2001.
A patent dated 1996 and belonging to Lockheed has been identified as the real X-44A’s design, or at least very close to it. The X-44’s skin is supposedly made out of nano-carbon fiber and it’s powered by a Williams F112 turbojet engine. The F112 powerplant is used in cruise missiles, such as the stealthy AGM-129, but it has also been used in other unmanned technology demonstrators, like the McDonnell Douglas’s X-36 and Boeing’s X-50.
Size wise, the X-44 has a wingspan of approximately 30 feet, making it roughly half the size of its RQ-170 successor. The airframe is modular in nature with a potato-like fuselage that could carry various sensors. It is also likely that the aircraft could have its wings detached for transport, similar to the RQ-170. The aircraft is guided by traditional control surfaces along its trailing edge and it features rakes, squared-off wingtips.
In recent years, the Skunk Works X-44 was refitted and used to evaluate visual cueing systems for the Navy’s upcoming Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) tanker drone program. Lockheed, which hasn’t yet shown off its entrant into the CBARS tender, faces stiff competition from General Atomics and Boeing.
What the X-44 provides us with is a new evolutionary stepping stone in a lineage of aircraft that collectively represent the Skunk Works’ quiet dive into the high-end unmanned space—a space that became increasingly promising in the early 2000s.
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