2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Navy milestone could drive more drones

Published: July 11, 2013, 3:31 pm, by Tom Roeder

George H.W. Bush is conducting training operations in the Atlantic Ocean.The Navy’s landmark carrier landing of a drone this week is being compared by some to the Wright Brother’s flight in 1903.

So what’s all the hoopla?

In conventional wisdom, many experts in and out of the military have said carriers were the one place where pilots would hang on the longest. The theory was that it took the skilled hand of a experienced aviator to put a plane on a bucking deck of a carrier at sea.

The X-47B landing about the carrier George H.W. Bush on Wednesday shows that Top Gun may be fading into history.

But before you trash those wings of gold, pay attention to the fine print. The drone that landed is an experimental model, with no contracts for a for a full-blown program in sight. Instead, the Navy is spending heavily on the piloted F-35 fighter, a stealthy jet with a ton of capability that will be flying from carrier decks for decades to come.

And the X-47B landing, while incredible, was done on some seriously calm seas.

But like the flight at Kittyhawk, it’s a sign of things to come. The military loves the idea of pilotless planes that can take out the enemy on the cheap. In aerial warfare, some think, the pilot is a liability. Pilots cost millions to train and can’t handle the g-forces that a drone can withstand. On top of that, pilots require expensive cockpits, and just when they get good, they retire and make their pile with an airline.

Drone pilots are cheaper to train and they never die in crashes or become POWs.

So Wednesday’s flight could be the first serious move from Top Gun to Terminator.