A roller coaster ride may be the closest a civilian can get to the feeling of whipping off the deck of an aircraft carrier in an F-22 Raptor, but it’s still not quite as fun.The two are about to have something in common, though.
General Electric’s engineers have developed an electromagnetic catapult — based on technology developed for the Superman roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California — to replace the energy-guzzling “steam catapults” that are currently used to propel fighter jets off the deck of an aircraft carrier.
The new electromagnetic catapult could replace steam catapults still used by even the latest American aircraft carriers. Steam-powered launch has a number of drawbacks. “It’s basically a tube with a piston inside,” says Mark Dannatt Mark Dannatt, director of naval business at GE Power Conversion. “You get a tremendous jolt at the start of the launch when you open the valve and let the steam out at full pressure. This does not do the aircraft or the pilot any good.”
But the electromagnetic catapult, the technical name for the technology is medium-voltage advanced linear induction machine, starts slow like a theme park ride and attains maximum speed at launch. “This is what you want,” Dannatt says. “The wear on the airframe is less.”
Steam catapults have been around for 80-plus years now. They are horrible for an aircraft’s airframe due to the “jolting” nature of the speed. The way the steam is released, the aircraft is simply punched forward.
Anyone who’s seen Top Gun knows what that looks like.
Photo: via GE
Steam also isn’t as easily contained, produced, and directed as electricity. And the use of steam requires all sorts of extra bits of machinery.With linear electric engines, on the other hand, there’s no punch. There’s a steady build. And the change will be almost imperceptible to the pilots; except for the lack of a sudden jerk forward, they’ll still go whipping off the deck.
The fact that electricity for the catapults can be generated by a ship’s nuclear reactors, combined with the lack of airframe maintenance on frequently used birds, was enough to convince the Pentagon to throw these on the next generation carriers.
Believe it or not, the technology has been around for decades, but applications actually hit theme parks before the Pentagon. The 1997 opening of the Six Flags Superman: Escape From Krypton ride saw use of GE’s “electric linear motor system.”
The company notes that the system was good enough to launch 15 people up a 415-foot tall tower at a 100 mph … so why not use it to propel a fighter jet off the deck of a ship?
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