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Triton Put Through Paces By Northrop

As the people of Rancho Bernardo went about their business Aug. 19, an operator in one of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s secure office buildings there took control of a U.S. Navy Triton — a large unmanned aircraft — during the middle of its flight over the western United States.

That unnoticed event was a perfectly normal occurrence.

Crews can fly the jet from anywhere in the world, said Michael Mackey, program manager for the Triton program, who noted that the Rancho Bernardo crew then transferred control to a crew in Maryland.

The Triton is a close cousin to the Global Hawk high altitude aircraft first designed by Teledyne Ryan in San Diego. Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC) bought Ryan in 1999 and today it handles much of the Global Hawk and Triton programs — including engineering and software work — in Rancho Bernardo.

On Aug. 19, the Navy reconnaissance aircraft made a 3.2 hour test flight out of Palmdale, in California’s high desert, where Northrop assembles such products. Crews operated the Triton via satellite commands.

Soon, Maryland will be the destination for a series of milestone flights. Northrop plans to send the first three of its Tritons east to its Navy customer at the Patuxent River naval station between Sept. 1 and the first week of October.

Operational Capability by 2017

From there, the Navy will begin the process of working with the aircraft, with a goal of putting the Tritons into early operational capability by the end of 2017.

Northrop built the Tritons as part of a $1.16 billion system development demonstration contract, received from the Navy in 2008. The money funds aircraft, sensors, ground control systems and some flight hours.

The Navy plans to buy 68 Tritons to replace its EP-3E signals intelligence aircraft. Australia announced in March that it plans to buy Tritons. Northrop is pursuing other foreign military sales on both Triton and Global Hawk, with prospects in South Korea, Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom.

Northrop has 800 people on the Triton project, including 500 in Rancho Bernardo. The company employs a total of 2,300 people in Rancho Bernardo, a location it calls its Unmanned Systems Center of Excellence. The Virginia based corporation employs 3,830 people at all units in San Diego.

Part of the San Diego work is writing code for the Tritons, then testing it. Northrop tests it on two “hot benches” in Building 3 in Rancho Bernardo. Each is a full set of Triton flight computers and wiring connections without an airplane around them.

Tritons go together on the same production line as Northrop’s Global Hawk, at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale. During a media tour of the plant Aug. 20, reporters saw the 41st of 45 Global Hawks for the U.S. Air Force, and the first of five Global Hawks for NATO, in addition to the three Tritons that will soon fly to Pax River. Tritons No. 5 and 6 sat on the shop floor without their long, glider-like wings, which give the aircraft a wingspan of 130.9 feet. The wings are trucked in from Texas. Northrop gets its components from vendors all around the United States.

Like Global Hawk, Triton can stay in the air for a long time — for 24 hours — and can fly at altitudes of 56,000 feet.

Though externally similar to the Global Hawk, Triton is very different on the inside. In addition to a sensor package geared toward surveillance on the open ocean, and anti-icing equipment, the aircraft’s structure is much more rugged than the Global Hawk. This is because the builder anticipates the Navy having to send it to lower altitudes — from a 40,000 foot cruising altitude to 10,000 feet — so it can get a better view of a ship it is tracking.

Northrop Air

The distance between Palmdale and Rancho Bernardo is about 150 miles. To help bridge the geographic gap, Northrop operates its own in-house airline, shuttling engineers and other employees back and forth several times per day in a 19-passenger turboprop airplane. Flights leave from Montgomery Field Monday-Friday, and also go Los Angeles International Airport to serve the Northrop office in El Segundo.

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