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Meet Fire Scout Charlie, Point Mugu's new helicopter drone

Meet the MQ-8C Fire Scout, the latest unmanned system to reside at Point Mugu naval base and the first of its kind to be tested there.

Although windowless and gray like many plane-type drones, the Fire Scout is a helicopter, perfect for takeoffs and landings from naval ships, making the coastal base an ideal site for the Fire Scout to practice.

“It’s 36,000 square miles of controlled airspace that the Navy can test in,” said Matthew South, a senior engineer with the Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, which is handling the Fire Scout’s testing and evaluation. “It’s a major maritime evaluation facility.”

Success with the Fire Scout under Point Mugu’s high-tech test program could potentially make the base a top choice for testing the Navy’s newest unmanned systems, those in charge of the program say.

“This is opening the door for a significant amount of unmanned systems testing of fixed wing (planes) and rotary wing (helicopters) aircraft” at Point Mugu, said Lt. Joe Collins, head of the VX-30 test squadron that is coordinating and assisting the program.

At a time when military bases need to promote their viability and compete to stay alive amid military budget cuts that threaten to close or scale them down, such niche roles could help sustain a base like Point Mugu,

In 2005, Naval Base Ventura County, which encompasses Point Mugu and the Port Hueneme base and is the county’s largest employer, lost about 400 staffers to budget cuts. The base and its supporters no doubt hope that as a top drone-testing test site, it would survive similar actions. The next round of cuts is expected as soon as 2015.

“With the Point Mugu Sea Test Range and Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division’s decades of experience with unmanned technologies, we believe that we are the logical choice for locating new projects like the Fire Scout,” said Kimberly Gearhart, public affairs officer for NBVC.

PRACTICE

The MQ-8C Fire Scout’s nickname Charlie distinguishes it from its predecessor, the MQ-8B, or Bravo. Charlie is the third and latest version of Fire Scouts the Navy has bought since the 2000s but the first to go through Point Mugu’s high-tech testing and evaluation process.

A “decent chunk” of airspace around Point Mugu, easy access to combat ships to practice on and the base’s existing infrastructure for testing drones gives it a unique advantage over other naval bases that do testing and evaluation, said South and the others involved in the program.

The 50-plus person team involved in testing and studying the Fire Scout is no small effort.

They include South’s civilian division, Collins’ squadron of helicopter pilots and test specialists and a team from the Fire Scout’s manufacturer, the Falls Church, Va.-based aerospace defense giant, Northrop Grumman Corp.

The Navy has liked Northrop Grumman’s series of Fire Scout helicopters but tasked the manufacturer to build a new version of the Bravo that flies higher, longer, faster and carries more weight.

“This will provide relief for ships’ crews, and keep a consistent tracking of targets,” said Capt. Patrick Smith, the Fire Scout program manager from Patuxent River, Md., who oversees the complete process from research and request for the aircraft to its purchase, testing and delivery.

The Charlie’s mission and use will be the same as the Bravo, he said.

The Bravo is stationed these days on guided missile frigates in the Mediterranean Sea and off the coast of Africa, Smith said. Its sophisticated sensors perform surveillance and reconnaissance and identify ships or other “high-value interests or targets” for its cameras to videotape.

“In the past, we used that capacity to support anti-pirate and anti-smuggling operations,” Smith said.

The Bravo has been tested with weapons but they haven’t been used, Smith added. The option to weaponize the Charlie will start in 2015, he said. Collins’ squadron is providing a temporary home for the Charlies, a large hangar where Northrop Grumman’s flashy banners promoting the drone cover the walls like tapestries in ancient castles.

Northrop Grumman’s pilots fly what are Charlie prototypes, but Navy helicopter pilots, such as Collins, oversee all test flights.

Juan Villasenor, a pilot with Northrop Grumman who has been flying Fire Scouts since 2006, has been taking the Charlie to near San Nicolas Island and back, testing its stability and performance while slowly taking it higher and faster with heavier and heavier loads.

“It’s pretty good,” Villasenor said, about the machine’s hovering ability. “Most pilots are impressed by it.”

When operating the Fire Scout, Villasenor and other pilots sit in a small, windowless closet of a space outside the hangar with a joystick, trackball and keyboard as their flight commands.

But they don’t really “fly” the Fire Scout, said Darryl Abling, Northrop Grumman’s flight test lead.

“They (the Fire Scouts) are completely autonomous,” Abling said. They fly under autopilot until a pilot needs to change course, he added, and then they respond to those commands.

While the Fire Scouts practice taking off, hovering, flying and landing, about 10 test engineers monitor and study “thousands of parameters,” such as pitch control and voltage, Abling said. The real-time data, sent from sensors all over the aircraft, fill 17 computer screens.

“You’ll never see that in a cockpit,” Abling said.

NEXT STEPS

As of March 12, the two Fire Scouts have flown 65 trips and spent more than 100 hours in the air, according to Abling.

But neither prototype has landed on a ship yet. They have been practicing landing and taking off on a squarish metal platform just outside the hangar that wobbles and pitches like a ship’s tumultuous surface, while small enough to mimic its landing area.

When it’s time to practice on a real ship — in April, Smith says — Point Mugu will be use a littoral combat ship stationed in San Diego.

By the summer, a 28-member maintenance and service unit will permanently move to Point Mugu to support the Fire Scout. The testing and evaluation should finish by September, Smith said.

The Navy has bought 14 Charlies and plans to eventually buy 30 for the full program, said Jamie Cosgrove, who handles public affairs for the Navy’s Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons division at Patuxent River.

During 2015, the MQ-4C Triton unmanned system, a high-altitude plane also made by Northrop Grumman, is scheduled to reside at Point Mugu.

Once the Fire Scout Charlies graduate from the program, Collins said his test squadron plans to have a bigger role testing future unmanned systems and is developing an operating standard for testing and evaluating unmanned systems within California.

“This is good for NBVC, in that it’s potentially going to bring jobs and more money to the base, and the community at large,” Collins said.

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