Vid The disappearance of swaggering pilots from the flight decks of US naval aircraft carriers came a step closer on Friday with the first flight of the X-47B robot tailhook stealth jet.
The X-47B is intended to demonstrate that unmanned aircraft can take off from aircraft carrier catapults and land back on deck again using tailhook and arrester wires. Such arrested landings have long been regarded as one of the most difficult and dangerous feats for human pilots to master, and US naval aviators tend to measure their manhood (or occasionally these days, womanhood) by the number of "traps" in their logbook.
Not content with automating the Top Guns out of their main trick, the X-47B is also intended to demonstrate autonomous air-to-air refuelling. This is another vital trick which human pilots find quite difficult (the act of flying the probe of the to-be-fuelled aircraft into the basket trailing at the end of the tanker plane's hose is traditionally described as being of similar difficulty to "taking a running fuck at a rolling doughnut").
Automated air-to-air refuelling has already been demonstrated, but its addition to a more or less combat ready robo-plane will be significant: the X-47B and aircraft derived from it would be able to stay up if required for days on end - without any fleshy crew, they could keep on topping up from tankers with their endurance limited only by maintenance requirements.
Getting rid of the pilot, ejection seat and other associated equipment is also expected to let X-47 type aircraft carry more fuel and weapons, thus making them longer-ranging and deadlier than today's manned carrier jets - even when these get stealth capability with the arrival of the F-35C Lightning, planned to equip both the US and Royal navies.
Friday's first flight at Edwards airforce base in California is merely the start of a long landbased flight test programme for the X-47 project, which is intended to produce two robojets and demonstrate the full spectrum of carrier-borne operations including inflight refuelling in 2013.
It's likely that the manned F-35C stealth tailhook jet will not have achieved initial operational capability with the USN by that point (it is not expected to enter service with the British forces until at least 2020). Arguably the F-35C, for some missions at least, will have been rendered obsolete before it even enters service.
That said, pilots are perhaps the dominant subculture of the US Navy's officer corps and many US admirals proudly wear wings of gold on their chests. The X-47 may have human obstacles to overcome as well as technical ones before it can take over America's carrier decks and hangars. ®