Flying an unmanned aircraft can be a little like skiing downhill backwards. When you're no longer absolutely sure you're going in the right direction, it's probably a good time to just fall down.
We're not really sure why the P-175 Polecat -- the latest Skunk Works creation anybody outside of Palmdale is allowed to know about -- met an early grave last December, and the Skunk Works public relations machinery (surprise!) isn't helping very much.
For the Skunk Works, I understand that secrecy and obfuscation may be considered a core competency but in this case it's not just annoying. It's irresponsible. The future of unmanned flight depends above all on the level of transparancy about why these aircraft crash so much and what is being done to prevent it.
Many times the reason for a UAV crash is just like the backwards skiier. Once control of the UAV is disrupted or lost in any way, the safest option is to crash immediately.
Unfortunately, we don't know if this simple explanation applies in this case and we may never know.
I've pasted Lockheed Martin's responses to reporter's questions below. If anyone is able to make any sense of the term "irreversible unintentional failure in the flight termination ground equipment", please let me know.
What’s going on with Polecat?
The Lockheed Martin Polecat Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) returned to flight test at the Nevada Test and Training Range late last year. During a test flight, when the vehicle was functioning normally and in full positive control by the ground operators, it was unfortunately damaged beyond repair. The damage was the result of an irreversible unintentional failure in the flight termination ground equipment which caused the aircraft’s automatic fail-safe flight termination mode to activate.
Why have we waited so long to release this information?
There was an investigation and during that time we were precluded from discussing this per government order.
What caused the flight termination system to activate?
A failure in the Nevada Test and Training Range flight termination equipment resulted in the activation of the fail-safe flight termination mode.
Who is at fault?
It’s not a matter of “who.” There was an irreversible unintentional failure in the flight termination ground equipment at the Nevada Test and Training Range. We believe the Test Range has corrected the potential for a similar circumstance to occur again.
Why couldn’t the flight termination be stopped?
The fail-safe mode is designed to irreversibly terminate flight to ensure that systems do not deviate from the range into civilian airspace.
Explain what you mean by automatic fail-safe mode?
The fail-safe mode is required for range safety for unmanned systems to ensure systems do not deviate from the range and pose a danger to civilians on the ground outside the range boundaries.
When did it happen?
The incident happened at year end. An investigation is complete and being shared with appropriate parties.
Will you share the incident report publicly?
No, there are no plans to share the report publicly.
Was this an issue with flight controls?
No, the aircraft was in full control and performing well.
Does the U.S. Government have any liability in regard to providing funds to build a replacement vehicle?
No, the U.S. Government has no liability.
General P-175 Information
How long has Lockheed Martin been working on this program?
LM internally funded this effort beginning in March 2003 and was ready to fly 18 months later.
Is this a declassified program?
No, this is a proprietary Lockheed Martin Internal Research and Development program funded solely with Lockheed Martin IRAD funds.
Where was it built?
The Polecat was constructed in our advanced prototyping facilities at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company in Palmdale, Calif.
Was this unmanned system meant to replace manned systems in the future?
No, Lockheed Martin’s unmanned systems are designed to work collaboratively with manned systems.
What is the highest altitude the vehicle flew?
We had just gotten back to flight test when the incident occurred. The highest altitude the vehicle flew was 15,000 feet.
How many vendors /subcontractors were involved on this program?
I don’t have an exact figure. However, Lockheed Martin is grateful to all the vendor team members who supported such a fast-paced program.
Did LM Aero intend to use Polecat to capture a specific contract or line of business?
Lockheed Martin has been involved in research and development opportunities for more than 40 years. However, we wish to position ourselves in development work for the Air Force’s future Long Range Strike Program. Many lessons learned on this project will be applicable to future efforts, including Long Range Strike.
Was this vehicle designed as a stealthy or low observable vehicle?
From a shaping standpoint the vehicle was configured for down stream enhancement but the original configuration was not “stealthy.” Polecat was an effort to better understand flight dynamics of a tailless air vehicle as well as advanced composite structural design concepts in support of our ongoing research and development work for the Air Force’s future Long Range Strike Program. The all-wing design gave the UAV an aerodynamic advantage by reducing drag.
Was Polecat planned to be a replacement for the U-2 spy plane?
No, the two vehicles are not related.
Was the UAS controlled by a satellite for Beyond Line Of Sight (BLOS) operations?
No. Our ground station segment was a standard line-on-sight, (LOS) operations capability.
How far and how fast did it go in flight tests?
This information is proprietary and as such, I can’t share that information at this time.
Have you had any customer interest in this system?
Yes. I can’t reveal any specifics in this regard.
How many people work on the program?
It was roughly 60 people comprised of engineers, shop personnel and support staff.
Why is it called Polecat?
Polecat is a colloquial term used to refer to some members of the Skunk family. Since this was a Skunk Works IRAD effort we thought the name fitting.