In 1998, Nicholas Flom stepped onto the University of North Dakota campus with a plan to get a degree and leave with a job as a commercial pilot.
During his last semester, the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shook the nation and his career plans.
“It took off my blinders and showed me there was more to aviation than commercial aviation,” he said.
Twenty years later, you can still see Flom walking around the UND campus, though his title and focus has changed over the years. Most recently, he served as the director of safety at the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site located at UND for two years before being announced as the organization’s new executive director last week.
Flom is only the second person to head the test site, which was created in 2013 by the Federal Aviation Administration and overseen by Bob Becklund before an appointment to deputy adjutant general with the North Dakota National Guard led to his departure.
Flom, who stepped in as interim director, vied for the open position against several other candidates before being selected by the Northern Plains Unmanned Authority as the man for the job.
He now leads a small team that is charged with helping the FAA integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace through research, testing and technology development. The test site has made great strides in the types of projects its staff has landed and the number of flights it has completed. So far this year, test site staff have completed about 1,600 flights — 10 times the amount flown in 2015.
It’s that progress Flom said he wanted to see continue and drove him to apply for the director position.
“From an internal standpoint, I felt comfortable with where we’re going, the direction the test site is heading and really wanted to make sure we stayed on that path,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of successes over the years and my initial fear was having somebody who doesn’t understand what the test site is, doesn’t understand North Dakota and doesn’t understand our relationships with the FAA and NASA.”
Now with the new title in place, Flom has big visions for the test site.
In the short term, he’ll be taking the helm at a time that comes with more than just his own leadership transition. The test site’s governing board is headed by Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, who will leave office at year’s end.
A new batch of legislators also will be taking their seats following this year’s election. The test site’s operational budget is funded through the state so legislative support is considered critical.
And from an industry standpoint, the next big advancement is right around the corner as well: flying beyond visual line of sight. Test site staff have been working for months with officials at Grand Sky, an aviation business park under construction at Grand Forks Air Force Base, on concepts and procedures for BVLOS operations.
It’s likely the group could see its work pay off soon, with Flom saying Monday that approval for such flight operations could be given in a “short time.” With permission to fly beyond line of sight comes new opportunities to expand projects the test site is leading, bring larger unmanned aircraft to the state for eventual commercial operations and potentially attract new businesses that could develop in North Dakota.
Flom and his team are up for the challenge as the group takes a collaborative approach to shape the test site’s future.
“It’s all of our visions moving forward and not one particular person’s,” Flom said. “I think we feed off each other to figure out that next innovative opportunity. At the end of the day, we’re all business developers.”
They’re guaranteed another three years to do their work, as Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act earlier this summer, which extended the test site program until 2019. In all, seven test sites are operating in the United States and conducting research.
The test sites’ work is paving the way for new procedures and technology, and Flom has a feeling that their value speaks for itself.
“I feel like by the time we reach Sept. 30, 2019, we’re not going to need to have Congress mandating this program in order to maintain our purpose and be successful,” he said.