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Northrop Grumman’s portrait of the future for naval aviation: the X-47B on the runway in Palmdale, California. (Courtesy Northrop Grumman)

*Pilot Not Included

Military aviation prepares for the inevitable

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There comes that moment for each new U.S. naval aviator, after six weeks in the classroom, then six months in a T-34 or T-6 trainer, and a year in a T-45, when he must fly out to the ship for the first time, ignore the moths in his stomach, slam the airplane onto the deck, and hook the cable. The rookies make these trips to the carrier in groups, but each lands alone. Some will have to go around. A few will wash out altogether.

Now a new aviator is headed to Navy carriers, one that never needs training, never tires, and never gets nervous. Called the X-47B, the vehicle flew for the first time this year, in the California desert, in preparation for its first autonomous landing on a carrier, scheduled for 2013. The X-47B is a robot, and though it’s just a demonstrator, it will provide a compelling glimpse into the future of naval aviation.

Unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs, are now the fastest growing fleet of military aircraft. The 300 UAVs flying today are expected to almost triple by the end of the decade. UAVs initially proved themselves in long reconnaissance flights, but military services soon equipped some with missiles. The X-47B takes the next step: It’s an unmanned combat air vehicle, or UCAV—a UAV designed for attack. Maker Northrop Grumman and the Navy call it a UCAS, or unmanned combat air system, with the vehicle as the system’s most visible part. Whatever the acronym, the $636 million carrier landing demonstration program aims to show that these new, stealthy, increasingly self-sufficient vehicles can fly in and out of the controlled chaos of a carrier deck and perform other frontline jobs long handled by humans.

UCAVs mark not just a technological shift but also a cultural one, with computers coolly assuming missions from fighter pilots who as a group have evolved an elite-club identity, complete with its own language. When the UCAVs fly, no one will banter on the radio about “goo” (bad weather), “drift factor” (straying off course), or “pucker factor” (self-explanatory). Nobody will bother to “call the ball” (follow the glide slope light to land). The robot will merely get a digital go-ahead, then drop to the deck.

In response, pilots are expressing everything from curiosity to skepticism. Many admire the endurance, versatility, and affordability of UAVs. Others scoff that they will never replace human initiative.

“It’s probably what every group of people who ever had their job automated went through,” says Missy Cummings, a Navy fighter pilot who became an MIT professor and studies how humans and UAVs work together. “The pilot has that image as sort of the last bastion of derring-do, and perceives [piloting] skills as irreplaceable. We have an emotional attachment to the idea of being a pilot that is very hard to lose.”

The Army and Air Force adopted UAVs rapidly in the last decade for around-the-clock surveillance and occasional strikes. The Navy was slower, but is now “all in,” says Rear Admiral William Shannon, the service’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. A helicopter pilot, he says UAVs will expand the Navy’s reach at far less cost than piloted aircraft.

The X-47B’s distinction may emerge in carrier ready rooms, where pilots watch one another’s landings on closed-circuit screens. Every landing gets a grade, posted on the wall. A perfect score is rare; pilots are lucky to get a few in their careers. A poor grade is an embarrassment, a sign of safety breaches that could turn fatal. “We’re very critical of ourselves and each other, but it’s a good rivalry,” says Captain Mark “Mutha” Hubbard, commander of the Pacific Fleet Strike Fighter Wing, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California. “Professionalism demands scrutiny, so we scrutinize each other’s passes to a high degree.”

Pilots can use the Automatic Carrier Landing System, which automates the approach and landing on a pitching deck. But that earns no grade. “It’s very competitive. I think that’s what keeps us wanting to do it in the hands-on, because we’re graded and we’re ranked,” says Hubbard.

The X-47B’s grades won’t make the ready room wall, and it won’t care. It will land flawlessly every time. Its odd geometry and nose-up angle would make it hard for an onboard pilot to see the deck anyway.

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About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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