November 19, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman
Guy Norris Mojave, Calif.
New shapes in the sky are no strangers to the denizens of Mojave, where developmental and test aircraft frequent the clear desert air. Yet even the most seasoned of observers could be forgiven for taking more than a casual glance at the twin-boomed Firebird, which began flight tests there on Nov. 11.
The unconventional aircraft is unusual, not simply because it is designed to fly with or without crew, but also because it represents a potential new evolutionary stage in the quest for more affordable persistent surveillance. While requirements for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) have hardly changed since observer balloons floated over the World War I battlefields of France, the ability to serve these needs has driven constant innovation.
Now, 19 months after unveiling its secretly developed Firebird medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) demonstrator, Northrop Grumman believes a new two-seat derivative of its optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) concept is one such development. Aimed originally at enabling a medium-altitude UAV to transit freely through controlled airspace by having a pilot on-board, the growth of Firebird to a new two-seater enables the penetration of a broader section of the heavily contested ISR market including the buoyant one for special-missions aircraft.
To underscore the fact this is more than a marketing pipe dream, the company has quietly clinched its first contract from an unidentified customer and is beginning developmental flight tests of the first production-ready model at Mojave. It was here, like the demonstrator variant before it, that the newest Firebird was built and developed by Northrop Grumman's Scaled Composites (AW&ST May 9, 2011, p. 52). As with the first version, which took around one year from start to flight, the two-seater enters flight slightly more than 14 months after the program started.
“We're trying to think of when we last did a winged aircraft aimed at civil certification in that timeframe,” says Firebird program manager Jerry Madigan, who adds: “We set ourselves a tough goal. We are looking at completing development testing at the end of the first quarter of 2013 with delivery after that. We do anticipate sensor upgrades and improvements over the systems life cycle because of its versatility and open architecture.”
The second pilot position was added at the request of the customer, offering a new dimension to the concept of a purpose-designed UAV with the option of a pilot on board. Madigan says the second seat now gives users the option of a position for a co-pilot and/or sensor systems operator, while retaining the original goal of providing a low-cost ISR platform.
The two-seat Firebird is therefore also being positioned as a “replacement for the aging, inefficient and unsustainable fleet of special-mission aircraft,” says Northrop. “Some of them are looking at asymmetric warfare situations where aircraft like the [Hawker Beechcraft] King Air or Cessna Caravan do not have the endurance, or the versatility,” says Madigan.