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Grand Forks base breaks flight record with Global Hawk

Members of the 348th Reconnaissance Squadron monitor the flight of an RQ-4 Global Hawk during an endurance flight from Grand Forks Air Force Base March 28. The flight set a new record, lasting 34.3 hours and was thel ongest flight by an all-female crew. Photo illustration courtesy / Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney, U.S. Air Force

GRAND FORKS — Last weekend, a Global Hawk from Grand Forks Air Force Base flew back and forth over North Dakota for 34.3 hours without stopping.

The base said this week that was the longest flight by a military aircraft without aerial refueling and it was the longest flight by an all-female crew.

Lt. Col. Amanda Brandt, commander of the 348th Reconnaissance Squadron stationed at the base, said she was inspired by Women’s History Month and the growing number of women joining her unit.

“When I came into the Air Force 17 years ago, there were only two pilots in my wing,” she said, so it would’ve been impossible to have an all-female flight.

In fact, it took a crew of more than 50 women, including six pilots, to pull off what’s been dubbed the “Flight of the Lady Hawk.”

The old record for an all-female crew was 18 hours, but members had to be pulled from different squadrons because there weren’t enough women in one single squadron, according to Brandt. The old record for a crew of any gender was 33.1 hours, which was also made in a Global Hawk, a large unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

Brandt said the advertised endurance of a Global Hawk is about 28 hours, but her crew landed Saturday with “plenty of gas left in the tank.” They wanted to encourage other all-female crews to attempt to break their record, she said.

North Dakota skies

While crews at the Grand Forks base fly missions around the globe, Brandt said the record-breaking mission was done in North Dakota to avoid any potential problems during an actual mission in support of troops on the ground.

Flying in commercial air space poses a small challenge of its own, though.

Between one end of the state and another are four zones, and moving from one to the other normally would require pilots to switch from one set of air-traffic controllers to another, according to Brandt. Having the Global Hawk turn constantly within one zone would consume too much fuel, but flying it straight would require a lot of handoffs.

Brandt said the Federal Aviation Administration was more than happy to accommodate the record-breaking flight by not requiring the hand-off, and the agency went as far as putting female controllers on duty during the flight.

Though the Global Hawk normally flies high above the altitude that commercial jets usually fly at, Brandt said it was still important for the FAA to keep an eye on the aircraft to ensure there is no possible conflict with the jets.

It took a crew of more than 50 to make the Flight of the Lady Hawk possible because that’s normally how a Global Hawk operates.

According to Brandt, a single pilot could push a button to make it take off and another to make it land, but its capabilities are so great that more crew members are needed to take advantage. For example, it flies for so long that multiple shifts are needed, in this case six eight-hour shifts. It also has various sensors that require specially trained operators.

Female aviators

Brandt said she’s heartened to see more women entering the aviation field. The field of unmanned aircraft in particular is family-friendly because it allows women, as well as men, to conduct missions around the globe and still go home to read their children to sleep at night.

She said the point of the Flight of the Lady Hawk wasn’t really to break records but to celebrate women in aviation. “I’m happy to say it’s not earth-shattering news. It’s becoming the norm,” she said, referring to how common it is now to see women in aviation.

She looks forward to the day her 4-year-old daughter, named Amelia after Amelia Earhart, and other girls can be the first person to do something and not just the first woman.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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