Northrop Grumman Firebird


Northrop Grumman H03 N326JG 5D4 3986 (48707200992).jpg
Role Intelligence gathering aircraft
National origin United States
Manufacturer Northrop Grumman/Scaled Composites
First flight February 2010
Primary user United States
Number built 1

The Northrop Grumman Firebird is an intelligence gathering aircraft designed by Northrop Grumman's subsidiary Scaled Composites 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 2010 and is considered to be an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV).[3][4]

Design and development

One of the last aircraft designs overseen by Burt Rutan, who retired in April 2011, the 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-boom aircraft has a pusher configuration and a long slender (high aspect ratio) wing with a very slight forward sweep angle.[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 flat-six piston engine and has a maximum takeoff weight of 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg).[7] The aircraft has hardpoints to carry weapons, though it is currently unarmed.[8]

A new variant with a wingspan widened from 72.2 to 79.2 ft (22.0 to 24.1 m) first flew in March 2018 and should be launched in early 2019.[9]

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.[10] 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."[10] The aircraft has the ability to simultaneously view infrared imagery, gather real time high-definition video, use radar, and perform local signals intelligence.[7]

Operational history

The idea of building an aircraft capable of being flown with or without a pilot was first floated on 9 February 2009 by Rick Crooks, when he contacted Scaled Composites about the possibility of building such an aircraft.[10] Scaled agreed, and on 9 February 2010 the aircraft made its first flight.[10] 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 in Mojave, California.[7]

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

Firebird is planned to have its European debut in the Royal International Air Tattoo air show at RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom in July 2019.[12]

U.S. service

The first Firebirds were scheduled to be delivered to an unnamed U.S. government service before mid-2019.[13][needs update]


 United States


Data from [15]

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: 25,000 ft (7,600 m)


  • Hardpoints: 2

See also

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era

Related lists


  1. ^ a b Hennigan, W.J. (9 May 2011). "Onboard pilot optional with Northrop's Firebird spy plane". The Los Angeles Times. 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.[dead link]
  6. ^ "Firebird spy plane at a glance". The Los Angeles Times. 9 May 2011. Retrieved 9 May 2011.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Butler, Amy (May 6, 2011). "Northrop Grumman Aims To Take On Predator". Aviation Week & Space Technology. Retrieved 9 May 2011.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ Rosenberg, Zach (9 May 2011). "Northrop Grumman formally unveils Firebird". Retrieved 9 May 2011.
  9. ^ Steve Trimble (Dec 14, 2018). "Northrop Grumman Formally Unveils Firebird UAS". Aviation Week & Space Technology.
  10. ^ a b c d "Famed Spaceship Maker Gives Spy Drones a Try". Wired Magazine. 9 May 2011. Archived from the original on 12 May 2011. Retrieved 11 May 2011.
  11. ^ Norris, Guy (17 July 2019). "Firebird Wins Northrop Grumman Production Go-Ahead". Aviation Week. Retrieved 22 November 2012.
  12. ^ "Firebird to appear in Europe for first time at RIAT 2019". Aerotech News and Review. 19 November 2012. Retrieved 18 July 2019.
  13. ^ a b Kemp, Damian (28 February 2019). "Avalon 2019: Optionally manned Firebird set to enter service". Jane's 360. Melbourne. Archived from the original on 1 March 2019. Retrieved 1 March 2019.
  14. ^ a b Hoyle, Craig (21 July 2019). "RIAT: Firebird makes European debut as Northrop names buyers". Flightglobal. Retrieved 21 July 2019.
  15. ^ Butler, Amy (6 May 2011). "Exclusive: Northrop Grumman's Firebird". Aviation Week & Space Technology. Archived from the original on 21 March 2010. Retrieved 21 December 2011.