Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Northrop Grumman Unveils New GlobalHawk

Northrop Grumman unveiled their latest version of the RQ-4 GlobalHawk UAV last Thursday, June 25, at their Palmdale, California manufacturing facility. The Block 40 GlobalHawk is designed specifically around the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) system which has been in developmental flight test at the Mojave Air & Space Port for the past three years. The new system is expected to provide the next generation of Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) imagery to the soldiers on the ground.

George Guerra, Northrop Grumman VP of HALE systems and Site Manager (above, right) stated, “GMTI is in such a huge demand today, and this aircraft will provide it.” Northrop Grumman Strike and Surveillance Systems Division Vice President Gerard Dufresne said this system “will provide a game-changing situational awareness to our war fighters.”

Northrop Grumman has been testing three developmental MP-RTIP units on Scaled Composites’ unique Proteus high altitude research aircraft at Mojave since 2006. According to Guerra, Mojave-based Proteus was used as “it gives us an advantage because it flies to 50,000 feet, so it’s pretty close to simulating the GlobalHawk environment. So, from a risk mitigation [point of view], it was a good way to get an early peek at how the system would perform at altitude.”

The MP-RTIP system is designed to be modular and scalable, with additional modules being added for installation on larger aircraft. Guerra described it, “it’s like a window, the bigger the window, the more you can see.” Originally, a larger MP-RTIP was intended to be installed on the proposed Air Force E-10, a modified Boeing 767-400ER, however that program was cancelled in 2007, and Boeing sold the prototype airframe to a customer in Bahrain, who had it converted to VIP configuration. Discussions are underway within in the Air Force, according to Guerra, to determine what will be the next large GMTI aircraft, and a scaled-up MP-RTIP is one of the possibilities being considered. However, there are no hard plans at this time to use MP-RTIP on any other platform besides GlobalHawk.

The first Block 40 aircraft, designated AF-18, is the 27th RQ-4 to be built, and the first of 15 that have been ordered by the Air Force. AF-18 will be flown to Edwards AFB in late July, where it will initially under envelope-expansion flight testing, due to changes in the airframe. In February 2010, the one of the three “developmental unit” radar systems will be modified from its Proteus configuration and mounted to AF-18 for the initial sensor integration flights. For a while, according to Guerra, Proteus will continue to be used for “different mode development work,” but ultimately the test program will be transitioned exclusively to GlobalHawk.

Current Air Force plans call for a total GlobalHawk fleet size of 54 aircraft, fifteen of which will be the Block 40 configuration. However, the service has also begun discussing increasing their fleet to a total of 77 aircraft, and there is expected to be some additional Block 40s in that number, according to Guerra. In addition, NATO is expected to order eight AGS aircraft.

While the Block 40 configuration represents the latest in GlobalHawk technological development, it certainly isn’t the culmination of the program. The German-partnered EuroHawk , which is based on the Block 20 configuration, is slated for unveiling later this years, as is the NATO AGS version of the Block 40. In addition, Guerra said that there are talks underway within Northrop Grumman and the Air Force, as a part of a “Requirements Planning Working Group”, regarding additional sensors that would be installed on a “notional Block 50” aircraft. “I think you’ll see a Block 50 in the near future,” said Guerra.

To date, all versions of GlobalHawk combined have accounted for over 2,000 missions and 32,000 flight hours, 75% of which was in combat, while posting a 97% mission effectiveness.

Steve Amburgey, GlobalHawk Program Director for the 303rd Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright-Patterson AFB, thanked the “Palmdale production folks” for their work on the aircraft. “What you produce here is going to end up resulting in the saving of countless American lives,” he said. Northrop Grumman expects to keep production of the aircraft in the Antelope Valley.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Anniversary numbers

It's been a whole year now since Google Analytics started tracking the visitor numbers for Mojave Skies, and in that time GA has logged 55,987 unique visits with a total of 126,946 page views, from countries all around the world (in the map below, if the country is green, it means that someone from there visited the site in the last year - not a lot of white countries showing!). Not bad, for an online niche aviation publication! Many, many thanks to everyone who has visited, commented, helped out and especially encouraged this project.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

WhiteKnightTwo Steals Show at Plane Crazy Saturday

For the June edition of Plane Crazy Saturday, the theme was "Wings and Wheels", and besides the usual warbirds and homebuilts that show off for the public, this time a couple of local car clubs came by to show off their gorgeous machines. Planes and cars...it was a great combination that drew lots of folks in to visit.

Steve Ericson showed up with his gorgeous Great Lakes 2T-1A-2.

I know there's got to be a story behind the F-22 "Raptor 17" sticker on this MiG-15...I've asked around, but no luck so far. If you know, please comment!

But, stealing the show, was Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve. It wasn't, of course, a planned event. WK2 was supposed to do a fly-by yesterday, Friday, at the groundbreaking ceremony of SpacePort America in New Mexico. A funny thing happened on the way to Truth or Consequences, NM, however. A problem with a spoiler caused WK2's crew to have to divert to Phoenix's Williams-Gateway airport, where it spent last night. That put the return, by way of a substitute fly-by of Las Cruces, NM, right in the middle of Plane Crazy. It was almost too good to be true, and the combined hopes of the crowd that had gathered along the edge of the taxiway was realized as Pete Siebold piloted WK2 through a fly-by down Runway 26, right in front of us. Another fly-by down Runway 30, and a taxi past us, and it was instantly a day to remember...WK2's first airshow appearance. Mojave trumps Oshkosh (where the debut had been planned to take place).

There's nothing like flying one of the coolest planes ever made around the southwestern U.S. then coming home to a joyful daughter! Behind all the gee-whiz technology are real families . . . the heart of small-town Mojave is what gives Plane Crazy Saturdays its joyfulness.

Kids, F-16s, and WhiteKnightTwo high overhead...what better way to sum up the Mojave experience?