Landing a drone on an aircraft carrier was not a cheap or easy task. The so-called "Salty Dog 502" has been in training to accomplish such a feat for years now, and the program has cost the government over $1.4 billion. It won't spend anymore, because the Navy is retiring its two X-47B's and sending them to Navy museums in Florida and Maryland. The aircraft deserve nothing less than being enshrined. "Your grandchildren and great grandchildren, and mine, will be reading about this historic event in their history books," Rear Admiral Mat Winter told the press ahead of the landing. "This is not trivial."
How untrivial is it? Some of the top brass say that Wednesday's accomplishment is second only to the introduction of naval aircraft way back in 1911. And the thought of robot planes zipping on and off of floating runways is probably just as scary to the people of 2013 as the idea of planes on boats was to the people of 1911.
Nevertheless, Wednesday's landing was just one of many milestones the X-47B has hit in recent years. The Northrop Grumman drone is a big drone with a 62-foot wingspan, though it can fold its wings into a more compact shape. The two aircraft have more or less been in nonstop testing since their first flights in 2011 and made its first "catapult takeoff" from land six months ago. The operation moved to the aircraft carrier earlier this year, and in May, the X-47B made its first catapult takeoff from the deck and made nine touch-and-go landings.
The X-47B was never armed, but the two drones will change warfare as we know it. Just imagine: now the Navy can launch unmanned aerial vehicles that can fly for dozens of hours without refueling from anywhere in the world. Although the test planes will gather dust in a museum, the technology that made the carrier takeoffs and landings possible will be applied to the rest of the drone fleet. The Navy will start accepting proposals for a new carrier-ready drone next month and hope the aircraft will be in service in three to six years.
And just think of all vacant space in the wardroom!