Well it happened – twice, to be precise.
The Navy’s unmanned X-47B jet-powered drone made repeated, safe landings aboard the carrier USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia Wednesday (irony alert: George H.W. Bush was a Navy TBM Avenger pilot of some renown; his son, George W., was also a military pilot, although of a lesser pedigree).
Speaking of irony, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus praised the historic event by heralding the runway before the aircraft. “By evolving and integrating new technology like the X-47B and the unmanned aircraft to follow,” he said, “carriers will remain relevant throughout their 50-year lifespan.”
The no-tail Northrop Grumman aircraft, call sign “Salty Dog 502,” had successfully launched from the same carrier in May. But naval experts say landing – with the real possibility of disaster – poses the greater challenge, for both pilots — be they flesh or silicon — and machines.
The stealthy jet landed via a combination of GPS navigation, a solid datalink, and advanced flight-control software that combined to let it thread itself through the choppy air behind the carrier and onto the moving flight deck.
“The Navy has crossed yet another step that the naysayers said could never be done,” robowar expert Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution said following the landings. “Now that unmanned systems have shown they can fly off a carrier, what will be their exact role? Whether they will be delegated to take on tasks on their own or paired with manned planes, for a package that is greater than the sum of its parts, is a crucial question of naval air combat doctrine moving forward. It is akin to the questions that early warplanes faced as to whether they were to be tethered to the existing surface force of battleships as scouts or serve as their own, as a new form of a battle fleet.”