Drone on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum


Rob Johnson

The new replica of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B drone at the National Naval Aviation Museum isn’t so much historic as it is a symbol of flight history in the making.

With a wingspan of 62 feet, the new exhibit is a full-scale mock-up of the first unmanned aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier. That event was last July aboard the USS George H.W. Bush while the vessel was operating off the coast of Virginia.

“The actual aircraft will eventually be coming to this museum, but it’s still undergoing testing,” said Hill Goodspeed, the museum’s historian. “In the meantime, this replica is on loan from the manufacturer.”

Located in Hangar Bay One, the X-47B is the second replica aircraft acquired by the museum during the past year, following the mock-up

of the Apollo 17 lunar excursion module that arrived in December. That model cost more than $70,000 to build, according to the supplier, Digital Design LLC.

The demand by aerospace and aviation museums for replicas of various aircraft is a relatively new market.

For example, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio recently ordered its first major NASA-related replica: A full-size model of a space shuttle. It’s being built by an Ohio company called Display Dynamics. The price hasn’t been disclosed.

On a recent day at the museum, some visitors who approached the drone paused to read the informational sign that accompanies it.

They walked under and around the aircraft, running their fingers along its sleek, aerodynamic frame.

“If they can take something out without putting anyone in danger, if they can send something like this, it’s a good thing,” said Christine Parrish, an aircraft technician student at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Doug Stevens, a retired Navy aviator who said he attended flight school at Pensacola Naval Air Station in 1985, expressed some reluctance in acknowledging the importance of the X-47B.

“This is, unfortunately from a pilot’s perspective, the wave of the future,” he said. “There will be more of these on aircraft decks than there are piloted planes.”

Northrop Grumman, which hopes for future orders from the Navy for X-47Bs to become a major part of America’s seagoing arsenal, is enthusiastic about loaning out a replica to a venue where it will receive considerable public attention.

“Our company has long dedicated itself to designing and building aircraft that transform Naval Aviation,” said Carl Johnson, vice president and program manager of the company’s Navy Unmanned Aircraft System program, in a written statement.

The replica X-47B went on display in October as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration, but the scheduled accompanying events that were to include special tours were postponed indefinitely due to the federal government shutdown.