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Boeing's robotic jet Phantom Ray takes maiden test flight

The sleek, delta-winged drone rose to 7,500 feet and speeds of 205 mph during a 17-minute flight April 27 at Edwards Air Force Base.

May 04, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • The Phantom Ray flies above Edwards Air Force Base on its first test flight April 27. It is designed to fly at 40,000 feet at speeds of more than 600 mph.
The Phantom Ray flies above Edwards Air Force Base on its first test flight… (Boeing )

A sleek, delta-winged robotic jet took to the skies for the first time above the Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base.

Boeing Co.'s experimental drone, dubbed Phantom Ray, flew to 7,500 feet and reached speeds of 205 mph in its first flight. The 17-minute flight took place April 27, but Boeing officials did not confirm details until Tuesday.

The Phantom Ray, which resembles a giant boomerang, is being developed by the Chicago company for a variety of missions. Its stealthy design could enable it to slip behind enemy lines to knock out radar installations, clearing the way for fighters and bombers.

Unlike existing combat drones that are controlled remotely by a human pilot, the Phantom Ray could carry out a mission controlled almost entirely by a computer. A human pilot sitting miles away designs a flight path and sends it on its way, and a computer program guides it to the target and back.

"The first flight moves us farther into the next phase of unmanned aircraft," Craig Brown, Boeing's Phantom Ray program manager, said in a statement. "Autonomous, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft are real, and the … bar has been raised."

With a 50-foot wingspan and 36 feet long, the drone was built at Boeing's complex in St. Louis with engineering support from its Phantom Works facilities in Huntington Beach. The Phantom Ray was flown from St. Louis to NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards atop the modified Boeing 747 that ferries the nation's space shuttles.

It took 21/2 years to get the Phantom Ray to the runway without the promise of a payout. Boeing does not have a contract on the drone; it is developing the drone at its own expense.

Boeing plans to continue test flights throughout the year at Edwards, gradually increasing the drone's performance. The Phantom Ray is designed to fly at 40,000 feet at speeds of more than 600 mph.

Boeing is also developing another drone at Edwards. Dubbed the Phantom Eye, it has a 150-foot wingspan and is designed to fly for more than four days at a time at altitudes of up to 65,000 feet. It will be fueled by liquid hydrogen. The Phantom Eye's first flight is slated for later this summer, the company said.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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