A certificate authorization issued this month allows aircraft to take-off from Grand Sky using Grand Forks Air Force Base runway and is allowed to fly in a radius of 30 nautical miles through the National Air Space System without the use of chase planes. In attendance to witness the event was Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and a host of team members who played a role in making this event happen.
"Flying large UAS beyond visual line of sight in the national airspace will allow the unmanned aircraft industry to demonstrate its true potential for contributing to commercial aviation operations," said Thomas Swoyer Jr., president, Grand Sky Development Company. "It reduces the cost for operators to test and prove systems and provides the opportunity for real-world demonstration of how unmanned and manned aircraft can share skies safely and efficiently. Achieving federal approval for these flights was truly a group effort and we can't thank everyone involved enough for their hard work to make it happen."
Grand Sky has a unique collaborative relationship with Grand Forks AFB. Through its enhanced use lease agreement with Grand Forks county, tenants at Grand Sky have direct access to the 12,351 foot runway at Grand Forks AFB. The agreement allows manned, unmanned, and optionally manned commercial aircraft to use the runway, which allows for real-world situational testing.
"People know a base is just a slab of concrete but it's the airspace and community which makes it valuable," Wilson said. "The airspace is valuable, the testing is very valuable and it's a mission the Air Force very well needs and leverages off the things we have here."
Additionally, the BVLOS flights are monitored through a radar system that Airmen on base help maintain. The team of Airmen provides a critical feed to flying aircraft without the use of chase planes.
"The feed that we provide to ensure the aircraft fly in a safe zone is extremely crucial to operations here on base and at Grand Sky," said Senior Airman Jonathan Hatcher, 69th Maintenance Squadron radar airfield weather systems journeyman. "The joint partnership with Grand Sky is an important one for the simple fact that we need each other for the BVLOS mission to work."
All large UAS flights from Grand Sky are launched and recovered on the runway on base. All BVLOS flights will be managed by Grand Sky along with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, which allows operators seeking certificates of authorization to conduct BVLOS flights within the approved airspace at Grand Sky.
"Today's exciting demonstration and summit reinforcement that the UAS industry is on the cutting edge of aviation, defense, commerce, and so many other areas and Grand Forks is at the center of this growth industry," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp." It's always a boost for North Dakota and our defense missions to host high-level military leaders, and today's events gave Secretary Wilson a firsthand view of the innovation taking place at Grand Sky. UAS technology provides essential intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to combatant commanders across the globe, and I've long worked to support and boost resources for this critical national security mission. Today's launch laid the groundwork for continuing Grand Fork's leadership role and keep looking for ways to promote our assets to stay cutting edge."
This event marks one of many more achievements and partnerships to come with Grand Forks Air Force Base and the local community.