Onboard pilot optional with Northrop’s Firebird spy plane

Northrop’s new plane, dubbed the Firebird, can switch from being a traditional aircraft to a drone with just a few modifications.

The Century City company is developing the propeller-powered Firebird at its own expense. It is betting that the hybrid plane will appeal to the Pentagon as defense budget cuts loom and the federal government deals with rising deficits.

”The government is always going to want options with its aircraft,” said Tom Captain, aerospace analyst with Deloitte. “Unmanned aircraft is taking on increasingly difficult missions.

However, in the fog of war, there are still situations where you need a pilot’s instinct inside the cockpit.”

If the military has a plane that can do both missions, it may save money on maintenance personnel and spare parts, Captain said. “It’s the same engine. It’s the same airframe. The only difference is how it’s piloted.”

The Firebird would compete for Pentagon contracts with the Predator and Reaper drones that have become ubiquitous in skies over Iraq and Afghanistan. Made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of the San Diego area, Predators and Reapers are often armed with Hellfire missiles or laser-guided bombs as they buzz over the war zone….

By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times



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