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Firm Breaks Ground Training Academy for Drone Pilots

Drone-maker General Atomics on Monday began construction of a new training academy for pilots, the company announced.

The 5–1/2-acre facility will train operators of remotely piloted aircraft at the Grand Sky Unmanned Aircraft Systems business and aviation park in Grand Forks, North Dakota, according to a press release from the company.

“We look forward to the completion of this construction project which will allow us to meet growing worldwide demand for RPA training and conduct airspace integration testing,” Linden Blue, chief executive officer of San Diego-based General Atomics General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., said in the release.

The site is adjacent to Grand Forks Air Force Base, home to the Air National Guard’s MQ-1 Predator and Homeland Security Department’s Predator B aircraft, both of which are made by General Atomics. A ceremony at the site drew politicians and U.S. Air Force leaders.

Military​.com in June reported on the company’s plans for a new training academy in the U.S., though at the time the location wasn’t disclosed.

General Atomics signed a 10-year lease for the site, which joins the company’s existing Gray Butte and El Mirage facilities in Palmdale and Adelanto, California, respectively, and will offer multiple courses and train dozens of students at a time.

“The mission of GA-ASI’s Training Academy is to provide safe, effective, and cutting– edge flight training for aircrew operating the company’s aircraft,” according to the release. “As an additional benefit, the Training Academy will potentially serve to augment USAF Training Programs as well.”

Note that it’s designed in part to meet growing demand for drone pilots from the U.S. and abroad. The Air Force has been struggling to meet surging demand for the positions. More and more pilots and trainers are leaving the service due to stress and fatigue resulting from high operational tempo.

Indeed, the pilot exodus spurred the Air Force to recently cut back on the number of so-called combat air patrols by armed surveillance drones to 60 a day, down from a peak of 65 a day, despite increasing calls for the missions from both combatant commanders and intelligence officials. The service has also rolled out a a new $15,000 yearly bonus to retain more pilots.

But workforce shortages remain. As W.J. Hennigan, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, on Monday reported:

“Desperate to find a solution, the Air Force is expected to unveil plans this week intended to ease the workload for drone pilots, boost their prospects for career advancement, and upgrade living and working conditions on drone bases across the United States.”

–Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at@Brendan_McGarry.

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