Large UAS Pilot Training Taking Off

With a global demand for qualified pilots, a major UAS manufacturer is establishing a new training center. On July 28, General Atomics made the first flight from its new UAS Flight Training Academy at the Grand Sky UAS Business and Aviation Park.
By Patrick C. Miller | August 15, 2016

On July 28, General Atomics made the first flight from its new UAS Flight Training Academy at the Grand Sky UAS Business and Aviation Park located at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Air Force Base. During a ceremony at Grand Sky, a General Atomics Predator took off from the base’s runway and was flown by a crew in a ground control station inside a temporary hanger.

North Dakota marked two unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) milestones in late July with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. ramping up training operations and the University of North Dakota dedicating a new aerospace education facility.

Construction of General Atomics state-of-the-art, 16,000 square-foot Flight Operations Center began in November 2015 and is expected to conclude in spring 2017.  The academy will operate year-round, offering multiple courses and providing training for dozens of students at a time.

David Alexander, president of General Atomics aircraft systems, says a combination of factors led the company to establish the academy in North Dakota, citing the relatively uncluttered airspace and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UAS test site in the state. 

“The FAA has designated this as a welcome place for UAVs,” he says. “That’s one reason why we’re here. It’s a place to have airspace that’s free to fly and local industry to support us expanding our business here. The hope is that we can fill in and train a hundred pilots a year and support all our ongoing operations.”

“Schedule certainty is one of the most important things for companies like General Atomics that are testing or training,” says Tom Swoyer, Grand Sky Development Co. president. “They need to know that their aircraft is going to be able to take off as planned. The people at Grand Forks Air Force Base have been fabulous to work with at integrating our operations into their schedule.”

According to Everett Dunnick, General Atomics program manager for international systems, the academy will train air crews consisting of a pilot and sensor operator to meet General Atomics’ needs, as well as the needs of NATO allies flying the company’s remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and other countries flying export versions of the aircraft.

“One of the things we have on our plate here is to work very closely with the state of North Dakota, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the FAA, the Grand Sky business park and the Air Force base to make real progress on UAS integration in the national airspace and doing so safely, consistent with all the best practices,” Dunnick says.

The UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences on July 26 dedicated Robin Hall, a $25 million, 66,000 square foot building to support the university’s UAS Center of Excellence. The four-story building houses a UAS flight lab, a UAS simulator room, classrooms, student study areas and offices.

“The students, the faculty and staff will use this building to our utmost capability to make sure that we provide the leadership needed, not only in unmanned systems as we go forward for this country and the world, but in aviation, aerospace, space studies, earth systems science, computer science and atmospheric sciences that we have in this college,” says Paul Lindseth, dean of the aerospace school.

Speaking at both events, U.S. Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D., announced that he’s working with the FAA to obtain a statewide certificate of authorization (COA) to allow beyond-visual-line-of-sight flying for UAS, which he said could happen before year’s end. He also said he was in discussions with NASA to conduct UAS traffic management research at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine