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The Northrop Grumman Firebird is an intelligence gathering aircraft designed by Northrop Grumman's Scaled Composites design shop which can be flown remotely or by a pilot. At Scaled, it is known as the Model 355. It was unveiled on May 9, 2011.[1][2] It was first flown in February 2011 and is considered to be an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV).[3][4]


One of the last aircraft designs overseen by Burt Rutan, who retired in April 2011, Firebird is a medium-altitude long-endurance aircraft designed to fly up to 40 hours at a top speed of 230 mph (370 km/h) at an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m).[1] The twin tailed aircraft has a pusher configuration and a long slender wing.[5] It has a wingspan of 65 feet (20 m), a length of 34 feet (10 m), a height of 9.7 feet (3.0 m) and a payload capacity of 1,240 pounds (560 kg).[6] It is powered by a Lycoming TEO-540 engine and has a maximum take off weight of 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg).[7] The aircraft has hardpoints to carry weapons, though it is currently unarmed.[8]

Reconnaissance capabilities

The Firebird is designed so that the aircraft is able to carry up to four modules of spy equipment simultaneously, on a separate system from that needed to control the plane, so that equipment can be easily swapped in and out.[9] According to Rick Crooks, a Northrop executive involved in the project, this design means that "[i]t takes days or weeks to get a new payload [of equipment] integrated, instead of years."[9] The aircraft has the ability to simultaneously view infrared imagery, gather real time high definition video, use radar and eavesdrop on communications.[7]

Operational history

The idea of building an aircraft capable of being flown with or without a pilot was first floated 9 February 2009 by Rick Crooks, when he contacted Scaled Composites about the possibility of building such an aircraft.[9] Scaled agreed, and on 9 February 2010 the aircraft made its first flight.[9] In October 2010, the aircraft demonstrated its capabilities of collecting information from multiple sources simultaneously for the first time when it made a demonstration flight in Sacramento, California, for defense officials.[7] On 9 May 2011 the aircraft was publicly unveiled for the first time, and between 23 May and 3 June 2010, it participated in the 2011 Empire Challenge exercise, where it displayed its ability to carry multiple payloads and switch them out rapidly.[7]

According to Northrop, the single aircraft built is considered to be operationally ready, beyond the prototype stage.[7] At the time of the aircraft's public unveiling, there were early plans for a second aircraft to be built.[7] If it enters production, construction of the Firebird is planned to move to factories in Palmdale, California or Moss Point, Mississippi, rather than the Scaled Composites facility.[7]

On 11 November 2012, the Firebird began test flights, and production was approved.[10]


Data from [11]

General characteristics

  • Crew: two(optional)
  • Capacity: 1,240 pounds (560 kg) payload
  • Length: 34 ft (10 m)
  • Wingspan: 65 ft (20 m)
  • Height: 9 ft 9 in (2.96 m)
  • Max takeoff weight: 5,000 lb (2,268 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Lycoming TO-540 opposed six-cylinder piston engine, 350 hp (260 kW)


  • Endurance: 40 hours
  • Service ceiling: 30,000 ft (9,144 m)


  • Hardpoints: 2

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Hennigan, W.J. (9 May 2011). "Onboard pilot optional with Northrop's Firebird spy plane". The Los Angeles Times.,0,1365932.story. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  2. Robbins, Gary (9 May 2011). "Northrop secretly develops spy plane in San Diego". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  3. Butler, Amy (9 May 2011). "Exclusive: Northrop Unveils Firebird MALE". Aviation Week & Space Technology. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  4. Grady, Mary (May 2011). "Scaled's Latest: Pilot-Optional Spyplane". AvWeb. Retrieved 10 May 2011. 
  5. "Northrop Grumman unveils new intelligence aircraft that can be flown unmanned or by pilot". The Washington Post. 9 May 2011. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  6. "Firebird spy plane at a glance". The Los Angeles Times. 9 May 2011.,0,2370890.story. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 Butler, Amy (May 6, 2011). "Northrop Grumman Aims To Take On Predator". Aviation Week & Space Technology. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  8. Rosenberg, Zach (9 May 2011). "Northrop Grumman formally unveils Firebird". Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 "Famed Spaceship Maker Gives Spy Drones a Try". Wired Magazine. 9 May 2011. Archived from the original on 10 May 2011. Retrieved 11 May 2011. 
  10. Norris, Guy (19 November 2012). "Firebird Wins Northrop Grumman Production Go-Ahead". Aviation Week. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  11. Butler, Amy (6 May 2011). "Exclusive: Northrop Grumman's Firebird". Aviation Week & Space Technology. Retrieved 21 December 2011. 

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