The U.S. Air Force Academy isn’t just minting new officers. It’s also on the verge of producing its own stealth drone.
Academy cadets have been working on a full-size stealthy drone since 2007. The unnamed aircraft will be tested in 2019 and could become the first aircraft designed by the academy to enter service with the U.S. Armed Forces.
Work on the unnamed drone began in 2007, when faculty and cadets at the academy decided to move past the design study phase and actually build an aircraft. They envisioned their creation as a full-size stealthy drone designed to challenge surface-to-air missile systems.
According to the U.S. Air Force, the current version of the aircraft is 40 feet long with a 24-foot wingspan and nine-foot vertical tails.” The aircraft uses two General Electric J85 turbojet engines, the same ones found in the service’s T-38 jet trainer.
In addition to Air Force cadets, the project team includes faculty, government, and industry specialists. The team is currently testing the design in the Academy’s wind tunnel, trying to make it backflip and crash. Once the team knows what circumstances will make the drone backflip, it can prevent it from happening on an actual aircraft.
According to one faculty member on the team, the Air Force Academy’s drone is set for a September 2019 test at Dugway Proving Ground. If successful, the drone design could be purchased by the Department of Defense or enter the prototyping phase.
“As far as we know, this is the first large ‘stealthy’ target drone,” said Thomas McLaughlin, director of the Academy’s Aeronautic Research Center, before adding, “We don’t know what goes on in less-public programs.” However, some observers have speculated that F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters are being used for similar purposes. Although , a handful of F-117As are still flying, possibly to test U.S. sensors against stealthy airframes. An unmanned stealth drone would feature a more modern stealth profile and be cheaper to fly.