First Large Drone Flown By Grand Sky Tenant Takes To The Skies

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As Dave Alexander tells it, every second of every day there are 60 aircraft built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. flying worldwide.

On Thursday, one of those aircraft spent a few minutes in the air over Grand Sky business park to mark the first flight of a large unmanned aircraft by one of the park’s tenants.

Alexander, president of General Atomics Aeronautical, was one of dozens on hand to watch the flight, which also celebrated the recent start of classes at the company’s flight training academy.

The academy’s opening at Grand Sky seeks to help the industry meet a growing nationwide demand for unmanned aircraft systems pilots.

“There’s a big shortage of pilots,” Alexander said. “Our customers do their own training but they haven’t been able to ramp up quickly enough so we decided to open this up.”

At capacity, the academy will train around 100 pilots each year, though Alexander said it will take time to build to that number. More than a dozen students are enrolled in the course now, and several were behind the flight of the Predator aircraft that soared over the heads of event guests.

Among those watching the aircraft circle Grand Forks was the park’s principal developer, Thomas Swoyer Jr.

“Large unmanned aircraft are flying from Grand Sky, that’s what this whole park has been about,” Swoyer said afterward. “It’s not just about building buildings and people coming to work. The point of those buildings is to support unmanned aircraft flying from Grand Sky.”

David Alexander, President of General Atomics Aeronautical, gives his closing remarks to the attendees of the UAS Flight Training Academy first flight event Thursday morning. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald
David Alexander, President of General Atomics Aeronautical, gives his closing remarks to the attendees of the UAS Flight Training Academy first flight event Thursday morning. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Training space

With training courses now underway, the number of flights leaving from Grand Sky can only go up.

For now, the students will learn to fly in classrooms in Grand Forks and at a temporary hangar located at Grand Sky, a 217-acre site rented from Grand Forks Air Force Base for aviation business development. The business park has a taxiway connection that links to a runway managed by the base.

Both domestic and international students are expected to enroll at the academy, which will require them to train between 30 and 60 days depending on the course. Training includes classroom time and dozens of hours flying General Atomics aircraft on simulators and in the real world.

Attendees step out of the temporary General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to watch the first predator drone flight around General Skys Thursday morning. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald
Attendees step out of the temporary General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to watch the first predator drone flight around General Skys Thursday morning. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Work on General Atomics’ permanent flight operations center, a 16,000-square-foot structure that will include training space and a hangar, continues west of the temporary hangar. Groundbreaking on the facility occurred this past November, and its completion date is anticipated next spring.

The academy’s location allows the company to leverage several partnerships, including one with UND, which signed a contract for training services in May. The university is home to a Predator flight simulator training system, and Alexander said General Atomics has hired its graduates as pilots.

“It’s a win-win for us, getting those young energetic people with a four-year degree that want to be aviators,” he said.

Continuing progress

General Atomics announced its decision to build in North Dakota last fall, a move that has been met with fanfare from local and state officials.

“It thrills me to see a company like General Atomics coming to the state of North Dakota,” said Al Anderson, commissioner of the state Department of Commerce. “That’s just plain awesome. But with any shared vision, it’s just a dream if you don’t have some action. And so there’s been a tremendous amount of work.”

And the work isn’t over. While the company has birds in the air, it and others are interested in taking them beyond the line of visual sight. Flying beyond human sight is prohibited for businesses and researchers in the current regulatory environment without other measures such as using a plane to tail the drone from the air.

Senator John Hoeven (right) and Barton Roper, Vice President Strategic Development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, watch the predator drone land Thursday morning. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald
Senator John Hoeven (right) and Barton Roper, Vice President Strategic Development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, watch the predator drone land Thursday morning. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Securing federal permissions to conduct that type of flying at Grand Sky is on the to-do list of many supporting the project, including Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

“We can’t be the premier for UAS development if we’re not working on these things every day,” he told the crowd gathered for the Thursday flight. “This is a global competition and we intend to be out front. And we won’t stay out front unless we push the envelope just like (General Atomics) is doing today.”

Hoeven predicted the permission would be in hand by year’s end and would attract more businesses to Grand Sky and the surrounding region.

It’s music to Swoyer’s ears.

“We hope to just be a beehive of activity with large aircraft coming and going,” he said.