HOLLYWOOD, Md. — When Northrop Grumman showcased its new, optionally manned Firebird aircraft by flying it to locations across the United States, the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport — home to the University of Maryland (UMD) UAS Test Site as well as TechPort, an incubator launched by UMD — was one of five stops chosen.
The selection highlights Southern Maryland’s growing role as a hub for the burgeoning unmanned aviation industry, as well as the continued significance of Naval Air Station Patuxent River. ”We have a lot of people in St. Mary’s who are involved at some level in the industry, whether as aviators, entrepreneurs, or enthusiasts,” notes Matt Scassero, director of the UMD UAS Test Site. “Naturally there was a great deal of interest in the opportunity to see this new aircraft in person.”
The Firebird is a medium-altitude, long endurance unmanned aircraft system that can also be flown as a manned aircraft, allowing it to use national airspace. According to Jane Bishop, Northrop Grumman’s vice president and general manager for autonomous systems, it can be converted from a manned to autonomous configuration in under two hours.
In addition to St. Mary’s County, the showcase tour involved stops and on-the-tarmac briefings in Dayton, Ohio; Washington DC; Tampa, Miami, and Key West, Florida.
The St. Mary’s event almost had to be called off, however. When unfavorable weather jeopardized the plans, quick thinking on the part of Scassero and a local aviation company owner, Ken Reed of S. Hunt Aero LLC, saved the day.
Scassero swung into action after concerns mounted about the forecast, contacting Reed to inquire about the availability of a hangar. Reed was happy to offer one for a socially distanced indoor event. He greeted the Northrop Grumman team personally as they arrived at the airport. In all, around 33 guests, including industry professionals, pilots, engineers, and hobbyists, visited over the course of a seven-hour period, getting an up-close view of the aircraft and learning about its capabilities.
Scassero says the success of the event reflects the “culture of collaboration” among aviators, engineers, entrepreneurs, and technologists based in St. Mary’s County.
“There’s a shared sense of being part of something that is bigger than all of us—a transformative moment for the region, and for aviation,” he said. “We see a pivotal role for St. Mary’s County in the development of UAS systems and other advanced technologies, and it’s exciting to help make that happen.”
“It was an honor for us to welcome the Northrop Grumman team and to be part of the Firebird tour, and we look forward to more opportunities like this in the future,” Scassero said.