back to article US Navy's plane-hurling mass driver in tech hiccup

Radical plans by the US Navy to equip its next aircraft carrier with electromagnetic mass-drivers for launching aircraft instead of the traditional steam catapults have hit technical snags. The so-called Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, is now under development in a shore-based test facility at Lakehurst naval …


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  1. Sekundra
    Thumb Up

    Liam Fox & Tory Defence Policy

    Thanks for the article Lewis - and any initial thoughts on the above?

  2. lukewarmdog


    How can it travel the wrong way? Doesn't it start from one end of a track and just go forwards? There isn't any sideways and there certainly shouldn't be a high speed reverse down open track that ends / starts at important equipment for it to crash into.

    "Oops, instead of launching the plane off the ship, we reversed it at launch speeds into the conning tower. How the boys back home will laugh at us."

    1. Neil Stansbury
      Thumb Down


      [...]How can it travel the wrong way? Doesn't it start from one end of a track and just go forwards?[...]

      Err no... for the simple reason that the Navy might find it quite handy to be able to bring the launch shuttle back to the starting point so you can launch another aircraft immediately afterwards.

  3. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    bi-polar disorder?

    Red connects to red. D'uh.

  4. Steven Knox

    At least..

    They could have called it an ...Initial Launch System -- make the acronym readable. Me, I'd have gone with something like Ship-based Launcher Integrated with Nuclear Generator...

    1. Someone Stole My Handle!!!

      Or Emails

      ElectroMagnetic Aircraft Initial Launcher.... Just emailing this plane to

  5. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Another British invention

    The elastic band - cheap, affordable and able to launch a new generation of lighweight unmanned aircraft across a classroom

    1. Chris Harden


      if PARIS project is a success....

  6. elawyn

    Gratuitous pop culture reference

    Insert Star Trek comment...

    "Captain, we need to reverse the polarity on the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System"

  7. John G Imrie


    So that was a squashed fly on the Spec and not a minus sign after all.

  8. frank ly
    Thumb Down

    Ahhh, safety features

    "..the "shuttle" - which moves along the catapult track to accelerate a plane to flying speed - went the wrong way in a test shot .."

    This is physically possible?? and they didn't have independent sensors and cut-outs ???

    1. Walking Turtle

      Same as always.

      While the emissaries from the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute admired the gleaming stainless Bifurcated Beamline of their Very Own soon-to-be, brand-new, one-off 14.5 MeV Fast Neutron Source (which was at that point still only semi-built but capable, in theory, of making spec) on the Stateside factory floor, the Chief Physicist /cum/ Project Manager (who was indeed somewhat of a Schnooky BS Artiste if not in fact an out-and-out Commercial Keik Scheisster) fielded the pre-demo questions from our Esteemed Colleagues from Nippon. One of which was, of course, "What is the completion status of the Safety Interlock System sensors and logic?"

      None of which had at that point been soldered together, let alone tested. Still in kit form, in fact.

      So came the glib and facile Instant Response: "Here at (firm name redacted to prevent further embarassment of sensitive parties still alive), we don't NEED interlocks - WE have our BRAINS!". Followed immediately by, "Run her up, David!"

      David the Operator did as ordered - one did not do otherwise in that seat and hope to keep their job. Up comes the Ghawdawful Howling 100KV-insulated Motor/Generator Set. Then the Duoplasmatron, the Extraction, the Acceleration... the Geiger counter stationed at the far end of the concrete Shield Wall started to buzz a bit.

      I, the Floor Tech, smelled something metallic in the howling waft. And David was wearing his "WTF?" Puzzled Look. And I read No Beam Current in Faraday Cup One, just around the magnet-chamber's bend from the duoplasmatron. But the operative panel meters on the console lashup indicated normal discharge currents. (THAT part of the Telemetry+Metering Package did work just fine; other parts were of course Almost There Now.)

      So throwing all foolhardy caution to the wind for a few critical seconds, I braved the thickening Alpha+Beta particle storm and sprinted out to the cage perimeter to have a real look-and-sniff. The masses of re-melted solder dripping off the Magnet Chamber walls in the mercury-vapor lights told me everything we all needed to know, all protestations of my companions-in-fusion-energy-research notwithstanding. So above the drive-belt din and all, I draws deep breath and howls at the top of my Lazarooshan Leather lungs (patent pending) as I sprints right smart back to the relative safety of the temporary control console area behind that three-foot-thick concrete wall: "Kill the Extraction! KILL THE EXTRACTION!"

      Chief Physicist/Manager launched forthwith into a screaming red-faced wizzy-haired assault on my intelligence, integrity and overall circumstance of having been born alive in the first place. David the Operator, however, promptly killed the extraction and wound the whole Frankensteinian contraption back down to Earth Potential. I walked away from the Physicist/Manager Gone Mad, opened the cage, threw the grounding-hook over the Acceleration Deck, climbed the grading-bars onto the grounded-out deck and had a look.

      How odd. The Deflection Magnet Power Supply breakers had not been thrown to the "On" position by the Installation Tech krueman. *WE* had NOT seen to the requisite post-assembly Quality Control inspection follow-up; the "No Time For That!" meme had been lobbed by Our Esteemed Manager so many times that we had quite lost all count of 'em.

      So we let the whole smoking mass of fabricated stainless plate and poly feed-tubing just cool down, amidst much red-faced sputtering on the part of one entirely embarassed Lead Physicist/Project Manager. Disassembled the rig, renewed the solder that had held the water-cooling loops onto the Magnet Chamber side, took a few fairly massive Globby Solder Souvenirs (still have mine somewhere), reassembled it all, verified ALL the deck-level circuit breaker statuses (stati?), caged the thing off once more, and gingerly ('long 'bout three AM the following morning) fired her up again with GREAT care.

      This time success, so little harm done apart from another overnight's bill per Lodging for Seven from Holiday Inn®. Could have "happened" to anyone, of course. (Always does.) Made formal spec that afternoon, then all went home for some little much-needed sleep.

      "No time for foresight! No time for QC! No time for safety! *ALL* the time in the world for post-failure correction!"

      Same as it ever was. Boffin, for fairly obvious reasons.

  9. Mark 108

    Wrong return value

    Perhaps the software spat out a negative number instead of a positive one.

  10. lIsRT
    Paris Hilton

    The Right-Hand Rule always confused me too.

    I know it's FMI, but remind me, is it:

    Force, Magnetism, I (current)


    magnetic Field, Motion, I (current)

    1. Thecowking

      IIRC (and I might not)

      First finger - Field

      seCond finger - Current

      thuMb - Motion

      Since it's not a generator, it's Flemming's left hand law (right hand gets the juice).

  11. Eddy Ito

    Software problem?

    Intern 1: "Is this function supposed to be cos(-x) or -cos(x)?"

    Intern 2: "I think they're the same thing so it doesn't matter."

  12. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge

    I'll watch this with interest

    Not least because the idea of propelling a metallic object quickly along an axis by the use of electromagnetic force is the basic principle behind a railgun. If they perfect one application, expect the other to follow shortly - slinging a heavy object at high speed is not too dissimilar in principle to slinging a much lighter object at much higher speeds.

    1. bell

      Only in one small regard

      The speed with which the magnets can be made to respond. Building the field won't be instant, and it won't vanish quite instantly either. I would guess that it would need to be far closer to instant for a railgun than for a launch catapult.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Just to be clear

        "...electromagnetic force is the basic principle behind a railgun."

        If it is pure electromagnetic force then it is a Gauss Gun. A railgun uses electric current passing through the projectile (in this case the shuttle) that is in contact with 2 or more rails for propulsion. Railguns should be able to achieve high velocity but at a great power cost. Plus they tend to wear out quickly.

        Gauss guns are probably not much less in power, but if you use permanent magnets on the shuttle I suspect you could achieve decent 'grab' on it with magnetic coils. Much less wear as the shuttle wouldn't need to touch the coils just run on wheels.

        1. Thomas 4

          Based on the results of the EMALS

          ....I'm not going to be the first in line to try a railgun or Gauss gun based on this.

          Mine's the one with "Industrial mishap" on the back.

  13. Secretgeek


    ...we got the tech sorted Bob. Just one final thing - where are we going to put this highly important , hideously expensive and cutting edge piece of control tech for the mass driver?

    Careful with that Bob we've only got the one.

    What's that? There's a handy space at the beginning of the mass drivers runway?

    That's brilliant it'll be safe there.

    This thing does only go one way right?

  14. Albert Hall

    Where do want to go today?

    Is it true this is the MS Corrigan program we've been hearing about?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    When the USS Theodore Roosevelt or the USS Kennedy was steaming your way you knew you were in trouble - I'm not sure the knowledge that the USS Ronald Reagan or the USS Gerald Ford* are en-route will have the same effect. And god only knows the reaction to Dubya sliding down the slipway.

    * Who was famously said not to be able to walk and chew gum. Maybe his namesake is a similar underachiever?

    1. Chris Miller

      That's the bowdlerised version

      LBJ claimed Ford was too dumb to fart and chew gum at the same time.

      1. Walking Turtle
        Black Helicopters

        That Rascally Furniture-Thief LBJ was likely spot-on.

        Per the Impeccable Independent Investigative Reportage of C. Story FRSA this week: That Retreaded Porno King dubbed "Gerald R. Ford"(TERAFNORD!) was, one deduces, likely still living for the Money Shot within his Upstairs Cavity even while on State Business. Kindly refer to HTTP:// top-link story in a new tab for full between-the-lines details-in-passing.

        So: If it's named Ford, it just might be Congenitally Eff'd from inception... Ask any Buick, Olds or Chevy owner. 0{;-)o<

        Black Chopper, for all the right reasons and none of the wrong ones.

    2. perlcat


      Yeah, that was famously said about him, and once no longer a president, our esteemed press decided to rehabilitate him. In fact, it seems the now "distinguished elder statesman" *could* walk & chew gum at the same time ex post facto. It all goes to show that you can't trust anything written about a person by his political enemies to be fair and objective when said enemies have an axe to grind, kings to make, etc., etc...

      Their subsequent darling Carter redefined underachievement (not to mention anti semitism) in new and creative ways, which should surely have been noticed by the sharp eye of our press, but for their own fecklessness. Mechanics to this day still curse him for his partial conversion to the metric system whereby we now have a combination of metric and SAE fastener sizes, sometimes on the same fastener. On the wife's car, for example, she had an exhaust manifold stud with 5/16-18 SAE threads on one end, m8x1.25 threads on the other, one nut with 13mm flats, and a locknut with 1/2" flats, BUT METRIC THREADS. Go try to find *that* in a store. If that isn't the definition of what a Feckless Fecktard does, I don't know what would be. It wouldn't have been so bad if it had either all happened or none of it, but, then, he wouldn't have been feckless.

      Me, I'd have named the carrier the 'Fnord'. Just for fun, & to get the conspiracy theorists going faster than the new catapult.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up

        Lovely toolset

        Ah, but were it not for Carter (and subsequent import-everything years thereafter), I would not have my wonderful toolbox, with full sets of both metric and SAE wrenches and sockets, to deftly disassemble any mechanical gizmo that falls into my clutches.

        Of a few last vestiges of that era - as memorials, I think - there is a sign on the Honolulu-bound lane of the Poly highway leaving Kailua Oahu that reads, in faded green, "Honolulu 14 Km". Apparently, either no one had the heart to take it down or one of my cynical colleagues left it there as a reminder of the stupid bullheadedness of the Anglo-American "no-foreign-inventions-allowed-especially-French" mentality.

    3. ElReg!comments!Pierre


      In other news:

      «USS Georges Bush Jr deployed in the Persian Gulf; Iran equips speedboats with pretzel machine guns»

    4. Mr Mark V Thomas

      Re: Gerald R. Ford

      Apparently, said carrier (the first of the new generation CVN-X) Class was originally intended to be called the William H Clinton, as the current U.S naming convention for aircraft carriers, was/is for them to be named for former U.S presidents, in sequence of office, & the last 2 Nimitz class carriers was accordingly named the Ronald Reagan, & the George H.W Bush (a/k/a "George Bush Senior" )...

      As such, the next carrier would have been named the William H Clinton, as he was the president that served in office, after George H.W Bush....

      However, the first carrier of the class is the name vessel of the entire class, i.e it's the (Insert Name Here) Class, & the Republican Party, in power at the time, reportedly loathed the idea of the "Bill Clinton" Class of aircraft carriers, having demonised the former Democrat president while in office, changed the carrier's proposed name from William H Clinton, to Gerald R Ford in a apparent fit of spite...

      As a result, the entire class of future CVN-X's, will be now called the Gerald R Ford Class...

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Think of it as a *very* high power stepping motor

    While this stuff is normally handled by a driver chip it seems that didn't quit cut it in this case and like a stepper motor one wrong sign in the code and the thing runs backwards.

    But seriously how did this *not* show up in testing? large lumps of metal moving at *high* speed in the *wrong* direction

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      You're on the right track, but more...

      How easy the wrong way? Assuming it wasn't a stupidity of having a "high-level" switch thrown the wrong way as you suggest, it is still quite easy to get it wrong, as anyone who has programmed rotary-stepper- or linear-motors from "the ground up" - using dumb (v. smart) driver chips will attest. This unique design with exceptionally large masses and forces may have required the programmers to drop back into programming it from the ground up to achieve the smooth acceleration required. Having probably cut their teeth in the age of the smart chips for lesser tasks, they may have been unaware of (or less than suitably impressed by) the well known pitfall of having the moving part lag expected movement at start up and thus, encounter the opposite electromagnetic sequence or phasing than expected - i. e., have the thingie accelerate in the opposite direction. A program can work perfectly well under no- or light-load tests and then bite you in the ass under heavier load. Been there, done that.

      Open loop design - Bad! With so much at stake on every "shot", they certainly should have required confirming feedback from the moving part for continued phasing, and, as other commentators note, added sensors to detect inadvertent reverse movement beyond a specific point.

  17. Richard Scratcher

    Insufficient research by the US Navy

    The danger of backfiring mass drivers is well known and was demonstrated way back in the 60s by Wile E. Coyote using his ACME personal launcher.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Steam catapult can work on non-nuclear carrier as well

    US carriers had steam catapult well before the nuclear CV-65 Enterprise. The Forrestal class had steam catapults, and IIRC the Midways were retrofitted with them - soon after WWII jet planes became too heavy and requiring higher takeoff speeds to be launched with hydraulic catapults. It wasn't the lack of nuclear power to hinder British carriers to have steam catapults, simply they were not designed to carry planes needing a catapult.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Older carriers were propelled by steam engines, good for generating steam, not so good when a freak storm rocks up.

      Modern carriers such as the CVF use gas turbines (essentially marinised jet engines)for propulsion which do not produce steam and would need relatively inefficient steam boilers to be installed onto the carriers.

      Personally I'm hoping EMALS works out and is purchased for the CVF, would be good to see some proper fixed wing aircraft operated by the FAA again.

      1. Walking Turtle

        Turbines Can't Make Steam? Dunno 'bout that...

        Um, I am no Naval Engineer, just an old, somewhat clever and occasionally wise Turtle Clan person. But ain't the exhaust from any such turbine en-jine mighty hot? And ain't them planes generally launched while the Mother Ship's jammin' the water, underway and in motion anyway?

        If indeed so, at first thought and second thought too it seems somewhat likely that a suitable mono/multi-tube boiler of sufficient enclosed volume for the job'd likely produce shot after shot after shot of terrorplane-launchin' Live Steam, if said tubular construct were mounted within the ship's engines' exhaust cavity... Haven't even seen what size of such an en-jine is used to propel a flattop to the places where we really just might not actually belong; doubtless, though, they are likely truly massive. So where there's hot exhaust, it does seem even a Handy Retrofit Steam Generator might be semi-competently arranged. (Better when engineered directly from scratch, of course.)

        Scaling that sucker out after, say, a hundred or half a thousand shots, though, might need some attention to detail... And that is all this one has for that notion.

  19. GumboKing

    Oh the humanity!

    I hope they are not planning to use liquid Hydrogen to cool the magnets.

    Big ball of flame due to their testing in Lakehurst.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    Another important programming lesson

    Yes, it really is important to know the difference between a double-word and a long-integer, despite both being 32-bits.

  21. Michael Necaise

    catapult test

    I'm about 5 miles from Newport News Ship Building... When they test the catapults they often have a large concrete and steel mass attached, to simulate the mass of an aircraft. They'll actually launch them into the James River (big splash). If that mass was accelerated backwards, even a short distance, and left the shuttle, bad things could happen. Very bad things...

  22. the bat

    Sir!!!..Which Wire - errr the red wire!!

    Do i connect the red wires together or the black goes to the red ....FLIP a COIN son!

  23. the bat

    May be the Equipment wasn't shielded !

    The computer gear probably wasn't shielded from the interference ....

  24. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    Jon Stewart seems to get on with the Carters okay.

    I too visualised shocked technicians wandering around the wreckage afterwards doing that thumb-and-two-fingers thing from physics class. Or was it finger and two thumbs... if these are nuclear powered...

    My other thought was, computer equipment + powerful magnetic field = learning experience. i.e., you learn "Don't do that."

    But then most of us don't know how a siphon works... I bet the U.S. Navy contractors do. They have 'em installed in the bottom of each ship to let out water when it rains. Otherwise, you know, the boat would just fill up.

  25. Gordon is not a Moron

    Shouldn't the headline be :

    EMALS suffers from Shuttle Premature Acceleration Mishap

  26. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    Nobody has got the two funniest possible outcomes!

    First, if the electric catapualt solution fails then the Septic Navy might have to buy F-35B jumpjets instead of ordinary F-35s, which would probably lower the unit cost for the RN F-35Bs. And we might actually get them BEFORE the USN!

    Second funny would be that the USN might have to go cap-in-hand to the USMC to get some of their F-35Bs as I don't think the USMC will be too happy at the idea of giving up their place in the production queue either!

    I suppose the only funnier solution would be if the USN had to quickly navalise some old AV-8B Harriers from the USMC whilst waiting for their F-35Bs when the RN already have theirs!


    1. ElReg!comments!Pierre

      Infinitely more probable

      If the USN ever needs the F-35B, they'll get them first and the RN will get whatever can be soldered together, whenever it's available... and will say «thank you», too.

  27. mhenriday

    As for the Royal Navy,

    why not scrap the plans for new carriers and decommission the ones presently in service, and spend the money saved on things that benefit the residents of the UK ? Or is that too radical a suggestion for the LibCons ?...


  28. DefConWon

    Alternative carriers

    Assuming UK can afford CVF. If not, maybe not. For an alternative:

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