Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy conducted the first flight of the MQ-8C Fire Scout on October 31. The unmanned helicopter, which is based on the Bell 407, flew twice that day at the Point Mugu range at Naval Base Ventura County, Calif.
On the first flight in restricted airspace, the MQ-8C flew in a pattern around the airfield for seven minutes to validate autonomous control systems; on the second flight, it reached an altitude of 500 feet while flying in a pattern. The aircraft was operated by a combined Navy/Northrop Grumman flight-test team located at the naval base.
In April last year the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to build two demonstration and six production MQ-8Cs to meet an urgent requirement of the Special Operations Command by 2014. In March, Navair awarded the company another contract to build six more MQ-8Cs, bringing to 14 the number of helicopters ordered. The total requirement is for 30 helicopters, including two dedicated to test activities. Northrop Grumman is performing final assembly at its unmanned systems center in Moss Point, Miss.; it delivered the first MQ-8C to Point Mugu in July.
Powered by an upgraded Rolls-Royce 250-C47E turboshaft, the MQ-8C is designed to fly twice as long or with three times the payload capacity of the Navy’s current MQ-8B, which is based on the smaller Sikorsky-Schweizer 333. According to Northrop Grumman, the MQ-8C will be able to fly up to 12 hours or carry up to 2,600 pounds. “The MQ-8C will require fewer aircraft [than the MQ-8B] to operate at maximum performance and will meet the U.S. Africa and Special Operation Commands’ urgent needs,” said Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s Fire Scout program manager.
MQ-8Cs will conduct initial shipboard testing on DDG-class guided-missile destroyers. However, “the program is looking into supporting littoral combat ship missions,” according to Navair. The Navy plans to attain MQ-8C initial operating capability in 2016, with a potential for early deployment next year.
The Navy will continue to operate some 20 MQ-8Bs as it phases in the MQ-8C. The MQ-8B Fire Scout is on its seventh at-sea deployment supporting antipiracy missions on board Navy frigates, currently the USS Simpson (FFG-56) guided-missile frigate, according to Navair. The MQ-8B has also been used in Afghanistan since 2011 to provide airborne surveillance to ground commanders.