The United States Navy successfully landed a manned F/A-18 Hornet on the deck of an aircraft carrier using a remote control system for the first time ever late last month.

Carrier landings are recognized throughout the aviation community as among the most difficult and complex ordeals a pilot can regularly encounter. Contending with sea winds, the high speeds required to maintain proper control over the aircraft, and the pitch and roll of the deck of the carrier in rough seas have prompted many aviators to refer to carrier-arrested landing as “controlled crashing” when everything goes well and the aircraft is yanked from 150 miles per hour to a dead stop in just under 1.5 seconds. When things don’t go well, it tends to result in the traditional form of crashing instead.

However, the Navy’s new “ATARI” system aims to reduce the risk associated with carrier landings while also serving as an important backup for the future of carrier based unmanned aircraft.

ATARI, or Aircraft Terminal Approach Remote Inceptor, actually shares some things in common with the video game system it shares a name with; specifically, the joystick. The ATARI system can gain control of an approaching aircraft as far off as 5 miles away, allowing an aviator aboard the carrier to safely land the aircraft on the ship’s deck in an emergency or as a supplement to a drone’s on board landing systems. The Navy does not currently have any operational carrier-based UAVs, but with a number of programs like the MQ-25 drone refueler steaming toward production, there is a growing need to bolster the systems required to execute the most difficult part of carrier operations.

“We took the guy who’s flying the aircraft and we moved him to the LSO platform,” said Buddy Denham, a senior engineer at NAVAIR and creator of ATARI. “You’re effectively using little joystick controllers to guide a 40,000 lbs. airplane, and it’s almost like you’re playing a video game.”

Landing signal officers work with the aircraft terminal approach remote inceptor in preparation for incoming aircraft to land on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. (US Navy Photo)

For March’s test, a hornet piloted by Lt. John Marino from the “Salty Dogs” of Air test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 relinquished control of the stick in his F/A-18 Hornet as it approached the Nimitz Class USS Abraham Lincoln. From there, Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) aboard the carrier were able to guide the aircraft in using a combination of built in systems that correct glideslope and lineup errors, and joysticks that permit manual changes to the fighter’s approach.

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I was really impressed with LSO’s ability get me to touch down,” Marino, the first ever fighter pilot to hitch a ride in an ATARI controlled carrier landing, said. “The conditions were really varsity (difficult), and it was really impressive the system worked the way it did. On a calm day, it would have been a little bit boring, but this was definitely more challenging.”

“There was some nervousness because the sea state was so bad,” said Marino. “Back on the airfield, testing was benign.”

The ATARI system is still being tested, and currently, there are no plans to deploy it fleet wide, but successful tests like last month’s carrier landing could help encourage Navy officials to implement these systems on all carriers in the future. Having a backup system that can take control of an aircraft on approach could save lives in combat situations, as well as helping to limit the likelihood of complications with drone landings, particularly in difficult environments.

“The deck was pitching significantly and yawing and rolling,” said Denham. “It was particularly difficult to land that day, and we showed it’s possible to use this system even when the conditions aren’t ideal.”

Further, the Navy could consider expanding on the system to allow for full drone functionality in platforms like the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet variants. The Navy has suffered a severe shortage of pilots in recent years – and a system like ATARI could help to ease the strain on the pilots they do have.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy