Naval Air Systems Command has tested at Lakehurst, N.J., December 18, use of a railgun to launch an F/A-18E Super Hornet from a simulated carrier deck. Current aircraft carriers use steam pressure to launch aircraft from the short deck of an aircraft carrier. Railgun technology has generally been applied to launching projectiles with enormous speed (up to Mach 7) using electromagnetism instead of explosive charges. The railgun delivers smooth acceleration and can be adjusted to deliver nearly any desired thrust. That matches the Navy's need for a launch system that can be tailored to suit different aircraft of different weights and speed regimes. The technology has bred a new acronym, EMALS, for Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, and its formidable power may also allow the Navy to explore heavier, faster carrier-based aircraft options. The Navy has tested the technology before, but the latest tests mean the technology may soon be put in place and there are already plans to do just that.
In 2004, the Navy tested a half-length prototype through 1,500 launches. The latest series of tests firms up the likelihood that a next-generation carrier, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, will carry an EMALS catapult. The Navy filmed the latest test launches (video at right). Jump ahead in the video timeline to about 1:48 to skip right to the action.