By Stewart Bailey, Curator
To the drug runners, their night couldn’t be going better. They’d made their rendezvous with the fishing vessel and were loading their cargo of cocaine aboard the speed boat for a fast dash to shore, where dealers were waiting to put the “product” onto U.S. streets. Suddenly, out of nowhere, they were surrounded by a U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement team and a U.S. Navy frigate that appeared like phantoms out of the dark. With thoughts of “how did they find us?” rushing through their heads, they started dumping cargo, but the gesture was futile as they had been caught in the act. Everything was caught on tape by a silent spy.
Sound like something out of a police drama on television? It could have been, but this scenario actually did take place on April 3, 2010, when the USS McInerney, a U.S. Navy frigate successfully intercepted drug smugglers attempting to move over 200 kilos of cocaine off the coast of California. They had tracked the drug runners in their speed boat for more than three hours and moved in to make the bust when they met up with their supplier aboard the fishing boat. And the silent spy that made it possible? It was a new type of robot aircraft named the Fire Scout.
The Fire Scout is one of the new breed of robotic warriors that is currently in development for the Navy to be used on its new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to fight the wars of the future. Designed to operate from any ship that has a flight deck, the Fire Scout can engage in many of the simple activities currently assigned to SH-60 Seahawk helicopters and free them up for tasks best done by manned helicopters. The Fire Scout is autonomous, and doesn’t need a pilot to constantly guide it like many unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), although it can be remotely flown by a human as was the case with the McInerney’s drug bust.
Originally created in the late 1990s to replace the first generation of Navy UAVs, the RQ-8A Fire Scout was created by Teledyne-Ryan and Schweizer Aircraft, based on the airframe of a three-passenger Schweizer 330SJ civilian helicopter, with a new fuselage, fuel system and electronics. A sensor turret built by FLIR Systems was later added and the new UAV made its first flight in January 2000. The control system, which is small enough to be installed in a HUMMV (“Hummer”) for shore-based operations can be linked with a high flying RQ-4 Global Hawk (also a UAV) to give the Fire Scout an operating range of up to 172 miles from base. In 2006, an RQ-8A demonstrated its capabilities by landing without human control on a moving ship, the USS Nashville, as it maneuvered at speeds of up to 17mph off the coast of Maryland.
A total of five RQ-8As were built, before the Navy gave the go ahead to begin production on the MQ-8B; an armed version of the Fire Scout that utilized a four-bladed rotor for increased performance and quieter operations. Production of the new MQ-8B began in 2006 at the Northrop’s facility in Moss Point, Mississippi, and in 2009 the first two B-model Fire Scouts were assigned to sea duty aboard the McInerney. It was during a test flight of the Fire Scout that its operators discovered and received permission to track the drug smugglers, using the UAV’s state-of-the-art optics to track the boat from a distance where the helicopter could not be seen or heard. The MQ-8B had proven it was a robot to be reckoned with.
For the A-model Fire Scout, their usefulness came to an end in December 2008. Of the five RQ-8As built, one was destroyed in an accident and one damaged beyond repair when it was dropped aboard a ship, and the other three were sent to the National Museum of Naval Aviation. It should have been the end of the story, except for an odd twist of fate. The fifth RQ-8Abuilt; the one damaged beyond repair, was set to be scrapped but instead was put up for acquisition by the Government Services Administration (GSA), where it was spotted by a Federal Surplus agent in Salem, Oregon. Shortly after, he alerted the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum and the UAV was on its way to a new home instead of the scrap heap.
Looking a bit worse for wear, Fire Scout #0005 was picked up last November by the Museum’s Terry Naig and Gary Arnold in Moss Point and trucked back to McMinnville. The aircraft had been stripped of all its usable components by the Navy, but there was still enough there to form the basis of a good static display airframe. So, over the last four months, volunteers in the restoration shop have been fixing the little bird up, and efforts are underway to replace the parts that were stripped by the Navy. There was extensive damage to the fuselage and skids from where #0005 had been dropped, but it is nothing the skilled volunteers can’t handle. When it is completed later this year, the RQ-8A Fire Scout will be a unique display in the Museum, showcasing the direction that technology is taking the Navy in the future.