Beaten By A Fairey Queen

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Somewhere in the Atlantic, later today, the Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS-D demonstrator should make the first catapult launch of an unmanned vehicle from an aircraft carrier - or, wait... a "modern" aircraft carrier.

The qualifier is necessary because the first launch of an unmanned aircraft from a carrier took place a while ago, and by "a while" we mean more than 90 years ago. The carrier was HMS Argus and the UAV was built by the Royal Aircraft Establishment. Details here.

The Royal Navy persisted with the idea of radio-controlled aerial targets, rightly concerned that the effectiveness of shipboard AAA would be crucial, and went on in the 1930s to develop a remotely piloted version of a catapult seaplane, known as the Fairey Queen, and, later, the de Havilland Queen Bee, a purpose-built target based on the Moth light aircraft. 

Argus was at one point modified as a Queen Bee launcher. In all cases the aircraft did not land on deck: they were floatplanes and were recovered by crane. 

The project was a technical success, but of limited use operationally: There is one story of a demonstration of naval firepower against a Queen Bee, in the presence of a Very Distinguished Royal Personage, which was terminated by the whispered command "For ***** sake, tell the operator to dial SPIN" after His Majesty's Ships failed to put a glove on the puttering biplane. It took radar and primitive computers in WW2 to solve the gunnery problem. 

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