EMALS, for you lubbers of land, stands for Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System. It is a new way of hurling aircraft off an aircraft carrier into the sky. For the last 50 years or so we have used steam to run the catapults, generated by the ship’s boilers or nuclear reactors, accumulated in a big container, kept at 520 degrees and 520 psi, then released at the proper moment to push a 4,000 lb set of 2 interlocking pistons down a 302 foot trough, dragging a 64,000 lb aircraft from a standstill to 135 mph in about 2 and a half seconds.
Problem has always been is that steam is very corrosive and is incredibly manpower-intensive. The challenge then becomes there was never a better way to do this – until now.
Utilizing the technology that gives us the kick-ass rides at a theme park as well as the Navy's new rail gun, big ol’ honkin’ big magnets, instead of steam, are being used to accelerate the catapult shuttle.
This is obviously new technology, and using it to launch 30-ton aircraft from a ship at sea with the 99.9999% success rate necessary for this business is a tad more complex than sending a roller-coaster up and down a fixed set of steel rails.
As far as that aforementioned 99.9999% success rate goes, it is best explained by the quote from George Dibiase, Director of the Support Equipment and Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment at Lakehurst:
“We strive to achieve a reliability factor of 99.9999% for our catapults and arresting gear…At 99%, a system will lose over a 1,000 aircraft a year,” added DiBiase, “while at 99.99%, 14 would be lost. Obviously, anything less than the 99.9999%, is unacceptable.”
The next time you look at a complex engineering system, think about the requirement to be 99.9999% successful.
This EMALS is still a problem, though. Last I heard it was still overweight and getting all those piece-parts that you can put together on a field like Lakehurst into an aircraft carrier is not the easiest thing in the world.
This video looks a lot like the traditional catapult hardware, but rest assured, it is indeed magnets accelerating that F-18. You can tell by the complete and utter absence of any wisp of steam anywhere: