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Some Washington, D.C., area drivers thought a Navy drone was an alien spacecraft as the plane was transported through Western Maryland and around the Beltway to Patuxent River Naval Air Station this week.
The X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle passed flight and other tests in California and was headed to St. Mary’s County this week for more testing when Internet chatter and news reports began highlighting the odd-shaped plane’s movement.
It is scheduled to begin flights this summer.
The 38-foot-long aircraft has a 62-foot wingspan (about half of that when folded for transport) and no tail, no cockpit, no engine exhaust and no afterburner.
There were similar reports from news organizations along its route as the aircraft was making its way across the country from California.
“That’s been a little bit silly,” said Brooks McKinney, spokesman for Northrop Grumman. “It’s certainly not unidentified.” Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program.
McKinney did acknowledge that the plane’s wings were removed for transport, leaving it with a flying-saucer shape.
“It does look kind of mysterious,” he said.
It left Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California about two weeks ago and traveled during off-peak hours to avoid disruptions to traffic, McKinney said. The robot plane arrived at Pax River’s gate at 12:05 a.m. Thursday.
A similar outburst of confusion occurred several months ago when the first X-47B was transported across the country to Pax River.
“It was a like a second round of hubbub,” Navy spokeswoman Paula Paige at Pax River said Thursday. “When it’s flying, obviously it attracts a lot of attention because of its shape.”
The aircraft is being tested at the catapult launch at one of Pax River’s runways. It will eventually fly around the perimeter of the base and out over the Chesapeake Bay, Capt. Jaime Engdahl, project manager, said earlier this year after the first X-47B arrived.
Unlike other aircraft tested at Patuxent River, the X-47B makes very little noise.
“So we’re not expecting any noise complaints,” he said.
Carrier suitability testing of the aircraft will begin later this summer at Pax River.
The drone can carry up to 4,500 pounds of bombs. It is programmed to fly automatically without a pilot or controller.
Staff writer Jason Babcock contributed to this report.