An MQ-8B Fire Scout sits secured inside the frigate Klakring on Dec. 1 as the ship returns to Mayport, Fla., after a deployment. The Fire Scout logged more than 500 flight hours in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility, conducting antipiracy operations and intelligence gathering. (Northrop Grumman)
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The MQ-8B Fire Scout has set a record for continuous surveillance. On an anti-piracy deployment to East Africa in late September, four Fire Scouts on the frigate Klakring provided more than 24 uninterrupted hours of surveillance coverage, a first for the unmanned aircraft. It required 10 flights, 10 launches, 10 recoveries and eight refuelings by Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 42.
"That really entailed a lot of effort," said Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager for the Fire Scout.
It was the first time a ship had deployed with four of the UAVs onboard. Past cruises had either two or three. The extra aircraft allowed for dual-air vehicle operations where the aircraft cycled on and off station, giving HSL-42 the resources it needed to provide extended coverage. Outside of the marathon session, a typical day of air operations ranged from 12 to 17 hours of coverage, said Lt. Cmdr. Kay Lambert, the officer in charge of the detachment.
While aloft, they helped identify surface ships and tracked pirates, said Cmdr. Darrell Canady, Klakring's commanding officer.
During the five-month deployment, typically three of the UAVs onboard would be in service, while the fourth would be undergoing maintenance.
"Obviously, it greatly expanded our capabilities," Canady said. The frigate returned to Mayport on Dec. 1, ending its last cruise before its decommissioning early next year. It was commissioned in August 1983.
Besides increasing capabilities, having four Fire Scouts onboard allowed the crew to quickly become proficient in the aircraft's evolutions, and operations "got to the point where it was very, very fluid," Lambert said.
Not all ships will deploy with four Fire Scouts, however. That will be up to combatant commanders, Smith said.
Naval Air Systems Command is working to put the Fire Scout onto ships other than frigates. Destroyers are being considered, and the UAVs could deploy on them by the end of 2014. The littoral combat ship also eventually will have the aircraft, and the number onboard will depend on tasking and the mission module, Smith said.
It was the first time the MQ-8B had deployed after Navy officials suspended flight operations in early April. This suspension followed two crashes in eight days. The first, on March 30, was in northern Afghanistan after a problem arose with the UAV's navigation system. The aircraft was destroyed in the crash, but investigators recovered some of its pieces. The second, on April 6, was onboard the frigate Simpson when the aircraft failed to "lock on" during landing and operators decided to ditch it into the Indian Ocean. It was later recovered.
On Klakring, maintenance issues twice sidelined the Fire Scout, but they were unrelated to previous technical problems and were resolved after the ship was able to pick up spare parts, Canady said.
Both cases involved components in the ground control station used to operate the UAV. One hiatus lasted two weeks, the other just one. Most of the down time was spent identifying the problem and determining logistics for the appropriate spare part.
Naval Air Systems Command spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove was unable, as of press time, to provide further specifics on the control station problems. Both times the frigate needed to go to port in East Africa for spare parts. It was a quick repair once the parts were onboard, Canady said.
The problems are not indicative of larger issues within the Fire Scout, Candady said, but more of a matter of determining what spare equipment to pack before a deployment.
Smith said the parts that caused problems in the Fire Scout's control station will not be used in a common control system under development to operate multiple types of unmanned aircraft.