The next-generation MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter has taken to the air for the first time at Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC) in California. Built by Northrop Grumman around a Bell 407 helicopter, the MQ-8C is designed to boast twice the endurance and three times the payload capacity of the MQ-8B variant that has clocked up over 5,000 flight hours in Afghanistan.

The maiden flight took place on October 31, with the unmanned helicopter taking off at 12:05 pm and flying for seven minutes in restricted airspace at NBVC to validate the autonomous control system. A second flight lasting nine minutes took off a couple of hours later and saw the aircraft reach an altitude of 500 ft while flying in a pattern around the airfield. A ground-based US Navy/Northrop Grumman flight test team at NBVC controlled the aircraft on both flights.

"Operating the MQ-8B Fire Scout from Navy ships has proved extremely successful," says George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman's vice president for medium range tactical systems. "During at-sea deployments, operators saw the need for a system that carried the same intelligence-gathering capabilities of the MQ-8B, but fly longer and carry additional payloads. Changing out the airframe, installing control systems and avionics, and then conducting a first flight of the system in a year is truly remarkable. I couldn't be more proud of the team."

In comparison to the MQ-8B, which is based on the Sikorsky Schweizer 333 light piston-powered helicopter and boasts an endurance of over eight hours or the ability to carry payloads of up to 700 lb (320 kg) for short range missions, the MQ-8C is based on the larger commercial airframe of a Bell 407 helicopter and fitted with additional fuel tanks and an upgraded engine, giving it the capability to fly for up to 12 hours or carry a payload of up to 2,600 lb (1,180 kg).

Northrop Grumman is under contract to supply the US Navy with the first eight of 30 planned MQ-8C Fire Scouts that are set to enter service by mid-2014.

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