Most people have never heard of Eugene Ely, although aviation buffs probably recognize the name. An American test pilot in the early days of aviation, he was the first pilot to take off from a ship (November 14, 1910) and the first to land on one (January 18, 1911).
On May 9, 1912, Air Commodore Charles Samson, a pilot in the Royal Navy, became the first pilot to take off from a moving ship. The final piece of the puzzle, and the trickiest one, was put into place on August 2, 1917. Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning, another Royal Navy pilot, became the first man to land a plane on a moving ship. The sheer danger of the feat was underscored a mere five days later when Dunning died during another attempt.
If all goes well today, July 10, 2013, will be another red-letter date in aviation history. The U.S. Navy has announced that it will attempt to land a drone on a carrier deck. This is actually two milestones at once.
First, it frees drones from terrestrial takeoffs and landings; when U.S. aircraft are launched from foreign bases, the U.S. military needs permission from the host country’s government. This isn’t usually a big problem, but shifting alliances and bureaucratic meddling occasionally throw a wrench into the plans.
This isn’t to suggest that today’s test flight will result in big changes right away. Carrier-based takeoffs and landings by drone aren’t expected to be commonplace until 2020. Still, it points to greater independence from fickle foreign governments in the not-too-distant future.
The other reason this is a milestone is that it allows a computer system to take over one of the most complex and terrifying tasks devised by man. Until today, it was always a pilot’s job to aim for a moving platform and set the airplane down without damaging it. This is next to impossible when the wind is negligible and the sea is calm and the ship is moving slowly. And some wind and waves and crank up the ship’s throttle, and it gets just a little closer to impossible.
Although some drones (Predators and Reapers) are controlled remotely by human pilots, today’s experiment involves an X-47B, which is run by an onboard computer system. The test is the result of countless hours of programming and literally thousands of simulations, and if successful, it will be a minor miracle of technology.
Today’s experimental landing comes fast on the heels of the Boeing 777 crash in San Francisco, which leads to a timely question: Will the day come when we turn the piloting duties for passenger aircraft over to an onboard computer system?