By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A larger and more powerful version of Northrop Grumman Corp's Fire Scout unmanned helicopter made its first two flights on Thursday, the U.S. Navy said as it plans to start using the new aircraft next year.
The MQ-8C Fire Scout took off and flew for 7 minutes in its first flight at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, California, the Navy and Northrop said in news releases. It reached an altitude of 500 feet and flew 9 minutes during a second flight.
Northrop said it had developed the new Fire Scout in just one year, much faster than normally seen in U.S. weapons programs.
"It is a big accomplishment for the integrated government and industry team to fly this air vehicle for the first time," Captain Patrick Smith, the Navy's Fire Scout program manager, said in a release issued by the Navy.
He said the Navy would need fewer of the new surveillance helicopters since they had a longer range and could stay airborne longer. He said that would help meet urgent needs spelled out by the U.S. Africa and Special Operation commands.
Northrop said the new version of the Fire Scout was designed to fly twice as long and carry three times as many sensors and other equipment as the current MQ-8B variant, which is on its seventh at-sea deployment for the Navy, supporting antipiracy missions on board Navy frigates.
The unmanned helicopter has also been used extensively in Afghanistan since early 2011 to provide surveillance data to ground commanders.
Retired Admiral Gary Roughead, the former chief of naval operations who authorized operational use of the first Fire Scout two years earlier than planned, welcomed news about the larger aircraft's first flight.
"Even though we got a lot out of the first Fire Scout, the bigger airplane with the increased attributes is going to be very important," Roughead said.
He said the helicopter could operate from a large number of Navy ships with smaller flight decks, giving commanders greater range and awareness.
Based on a larger commercial airframe with additional fuel tanks and an upgraded engine, the MQ-8C will be able to fly up to 12 hours or carry up to 2,600 pounds (1,180 kg), Northrop said.
George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman's vice president for medium-range tactical systems, said Northrop developed a bigger version of the Fire Scout after Navy operators asked for a system that could fly longer and carry more sensors.
"Changing out the airframe, installing control systems and avionics, and then conducting a first flight of the system in a year is truly remarkable," Vardoulakis said.
(Editing by Stephen Coates)