ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH — "This is a historic day. This is a banner day. This is a red-flag letter day," Winter said. "You can call it what you want, but the fact of the matter is that you just observed history — history that your great-grandchildren, my great grandchildren, everybody's great grandchildren are going to be reading in our history books."
Less than an hour after that first landing, the jet took off from the carrier and then landed again. On its third and last-planned landing attempt, the Navy said, the jet self-detected a navigation computer anomaly. Instead of landing on the carrier, it flew to Wallops Island Air Field on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The Navy says the plane landed safely there.
The Navy will do some additional tests and analysis on the jet, and possibly some more landings in the next few days if the carrier's schedule allows for it, but the first landing was the last major benchmark for the program to hit.
The X-47B will never be put into operational use, but it will help Navy officials develop future carrier-based drones. Those drones could begin operating by 2020, according to Winter. Four companies are expected to compete for a contract to design the future unmanned aircraft, which will be awarded in fiscal year 2014.
The two experimental aircraft that have been built for the first round of testing will be retired and placed in museums at Patuxent River and at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
The move to expand the capabilities of the nation's drones comes amid growing criticism of America's use of Predators and Reapers to gather intelligence and carry out lethal missile attacks against terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Critics in the U.S. and abroad have charged that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight. Still, defense analysts say drones are the future of warfare.