The Navy has grounded its fleet of MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopters after two unrelated crashes in a one-week period. It means that the frigate Simpson, which deployed to West Africa in January in a counter piracy detail with a pair of Fire Scouts onboard, is left without any operational aircraft.
Fire Scout flights are “temporarily suspended” for all 14 aircraft in the Navy’s inventory while the two incidents are investigated and improvements are made, Naval Air Systems Command officials said Tuesday.
On April 6, the most recent incident, a Fire Scout operating in northern Afghanistan crashed during a surveillance mission with Regional Command-North. The UAV was not recovered and the cause of the crash is under investigation. The Navy has three of the aircraft in Afghanistan.
A week earlier a Fire Scout was ditched at sea at the end of a sortie off the coast of Western Africa. On March 30, the UAV left the Simpson for an Africa Partnership Station surveillance mission. When it returned to the ship, it was not able to “lock on” with its UAS Common Automated Recovery System, a program that automatically lands the Fire Scout on the ship’s deck. A spokesman for Northrop Grumman, the contractor that developed the Fire Scout, said there’s no manual way to land the aircraft. The Simpson’s crew was able to recover the Fire Scout by hoisting it from a lift point atop the rotor.
The mishaps did not cause any injuries or damage other aircraft.
It’s not clear what will happen with the Simpson’s deployment now that it doesn’t have any operational aircraft. This was the first time that the Fire Scout deployed without an accompanying MH-60 Sea Hawk.
The Naval Station Mayport, Fla.-based frigate deployed Jan. 17 on a six-month cruise that included one exercise in the Mediterranean and two near West Africa. It was expected to work with forces from Senegal, Sierra Leone and the Gambia.
Navy Surface Force Atlantic did not immediately return calls for comment.
It’s also unclear what implications the grounding will have on the Simpson’s deployment or the Fire Scout program. The program office had planned to test new software, a more robust datalink, a laser range finder, and the reliability of the interaction between the ship and the aircraft. On the operations side, the deployment was expected to test how the Fire Scout makes contact with unknown surface vessels its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the littorals and its ability to handle unplanned missions.
The Simpson Fire Scouts were operated by officers from Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 60, Detachment 4 — a reserve detachment. The six-month deployment, which began Jan. 17, was the first time a Fire Scout detachment went underway with reservists at the Fire Scout’s controls. It was one of the steps the Navy has taken to determine manning for the UAV. Active duty officers and enlisted sailors with an H-60 Sea Hawk background have flown the Fire Scout on prior deployments.
These two incidents aren’t the first time that a Fire Scout has been lost in operations. While flying over Libya in June, a Fire Scout attached to the frigate Halyburton was shot down by forces that were likely loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gadhafi. That deployment also had a series of technical glitches, including a finicky datalink that required operators to create workaround or cancel sorties.
Since then, however, the Navy and Northrop Grumman have improved the datalink, boosting reliability. Since 2006, Fire Scouts have flown more than 5,000 flight hours, with more than 3,000 accrued during deployments.