We Have The Best Images And Video Yet Of The H03 Firebird Spy Plane And Boy Does It Sound Odd

The optionally manned, medium-altitude, long-endurance surveillance plane is meant to be quiet, which explains its strange acoustic signature. 

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

Scaled Composites' optionally manned H03 Firebird surveillance plane has captured our imaginations since we first posted detailed single aspect images of its intriguing tail configuration last April. Since then, we reported that it had taken to the skies and had images to prove it. You can read everything we know about this highly unique aircraft and its interesting lineage in both of those past posts linked here and here. Now we have the clearest images yet of this supposed production-ready Firebird and its sensor suite, taken at Mojave Air And Space Port by our good friend and regular contributor Matt Hartman of Shorealonefilms.com.

Here are those shots and some captions about what we can see in them:

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

Once again, Scaled Composites ground crews are wearing logo gear associated with the aircraft they are supporting. 

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

The wingspan of the H03 is really impressive, a necessity for very long-endurance loitering operations up at altitudes where jet airliners fly. 

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

Note the small round fixtures above the aircraft's LED landing light and on its horizontal tailplane. These are very likely cameras that would be used for unmanned operations. The cockpit area of the Firebird can be replaced with a high-bandwidth satellite communications system covered by an opaque fairing. This image also gives us a good look at the beyond-line-of-sight UHF satcom antenna installed on the lefthand sponson.

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

The cone-like fairings under the nose and above the right tail are line-of-sight data-link antennas that can send the intelligence the H03 collects directly to ground stations for exploitation. They can also be used for command and control of the vehicle during line-of-sight unmanned operations.

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

Here is by far our best view of Firebird's primary sensor as it is configured now, the FLIR systems Star SAFIRE 380. The sensor ball is a highly capable and features HD multi-spectral imaging as well as laser capabilities. Most important is that it has a 120X zoom that would be very useful considering the altitudes Firebird operates at. It also features a fairly wide field of view of 30 degrees at the short end just .25 degrees at the short end. The latest versions can also fuse multi-spectral imagery together in real time. 

Here is a sample of just how incredible this sensor system is:

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

Here we see the engine configuration, with its big twin air scoops. Supposedly Firebird uses a turbocharged Lycoming TEO-540E, but this could have changed. There was also mention of it having the option of running a heavy fuel engine as well. The FAA lists the aircraft's engine as AMA/Experimental.

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

The up-turned dihedral of Firebird's wings may have an aerodynamic advantage but the configuration also improves line-of-sight of its sensor turret during banks. Considering the aircraft could loiter over a localized area for a long period of time this is quite important. 

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

Note the other antennas arrayed neatly atop Firebird's spine and the aircraft still carries a flight test data probe. Overall the fit and finish on this aircraft is very impressive. It does look very much like a production-ready design, something that is a bit unique for Scaled Composites. Supposedly a customer does exist and eventually, this aircraft, along with a number of others, will end up in their hands. 

The images are certainly interesting, but this video of Firebird taxiing is even more so just for the audio alone:

Firebird is meant to be quiet due to its spy/surveillance mission set. Trying to get the drop on some bad guys while droning overhead like a buzz saw sort of defeats the point. Its five-bladed prop helps with its audible signature but clearly, other measures have been taken to make it as silent as possible.

As the H03's testing commences hopefully Scaled Composites will tell us a little bit more about the aircraft and even possibly who is slated to take ownership of it. Its unique and highly flexible feature set seems as if it would be really attractive, especially to export customers who can't afford all different types of manned and unmanned aerial surveillance assets. Just being able to easily forward-deploy the H03 to new locales with a pilot at the controls is a huge advantage over strictly unmanned medium altitude long endurance platforms. Other high-altitude, prop-driven surveillance aircraft do exist and remain in demand, but none are built to be optionally manned. 

We also know that the EO/IR sensor ball is just the start of the aircraft's payload capabilities and it's designed to carry many types of systems, including radars, electronic intelligence suites, air sampling gear, and possibly even weapons. Seeing that Scaled Composites is owned by Northrop Grumman, its parent company may now have a product to offer that nobody can really compete directly with. 

We will keep you in the loop as to any new developments with this truly intriguing aircraft. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com