USS Fort Worth Receives Navy's First Helicopter Drone

When the littoral combat ship Fort Worth left San Diego Bay on Monday, it marked a new chapter in drone use by the Navy.

The ship’s 16-month deployment to Asian waters is the first to send manned and unmanned helicopters out to work together.

The Fort Worth carried one MQ-8B Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter engineered in San Diego by Northrop Grumman.

That drone will work in tandem with a standard piloted helicopter, the Navy’s workhorse MH-60 Seahawk.

Sailors and civilian contractors perform preflight checks on an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth

“We’re expanding the bounds of naval aviation,” said Cmdr. Katie Ellis, executive officer of HSM-35, a North Island Naval Air Station squadron that’s the first to fly both kinds of aircraft.

Two major Navy constituencies – ships and aviation – have a lot riding on this deployment, which will take the Fort Worth to Singapore.

It’s the first test of the manned-unmanned concept, but it will also provide another score card for the controversial littoral ship program, which has been challenged by mechanical problems.

The Fort Worth is the second littoral ship to embark on a Singapore deployment. The first, the Freedom in 2013, had mixed results on its 10-month journey.

Navy leaders said the ship performed well in interactions with Asian navies. But the first-of-class vessel broke down at least twice, prompting the House Armed Service Committee to say it was “disturbed” by the number of problems that appeared to be beyond the crew’s capability to handle.

Upon the Fort Worth’s departure Monday, the head of the Navy’s San Diego-based Third Fleet said he is proud of the ship’s crews for getting it ready for its maiden deployment.

The USS Fort Worth, LCS, the third ship in the Navy's littoral combat ship line

“We're looking forward to Fort Worth building on the successes and lessons learned from Freedom's deployment last year," Vice Adm. Kenneth Floyd said in a released statement.

This Singapore tour is longer than the past one.

During 16 months, crews will swap out every four months, allowing the ship to remain in Asia while sailors get time at home.

The Fire Scout will also save the Navy manpower and travel time, according to officials.

The helicopter drone can be up for four and a half hours at a time, while the heavier manned helicopter has one less hour of air time.

Also it only takes two people – a pilot and a gear operator – to “fly” the unarmed Fire Scout from a console inside the ship.

The manned Navy helicopter requires two pilots and at least one crewman.

HSM-35’s mechanics have been trained to work on both kinds of aircraft to keep them running.

Asked which one he prefers, the pilot in charge of the Fort Worth’s first air contingent said, diplomatically, “I love them both.”

At a press conference Thursday, Lt. Cmdr. Douglas Kay added, “It’s exciting to be on the cutting edge of naval aviation.”