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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications, Published July 25 2012

FAA opens drone range at Camp Grafton

GRAND FORKS – Passersby should hardly notice, but by early October, unmanned Predator aircraft will be aiming lasers at ground targets at Camp Grafton South near New Rockford, N.D.

“People may hear airplanes flying above, but there will be no lights visible and no explosions,” said Col. Rick Gibney, commander of the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Wing based at Fargo’s Hector International Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration last month established eight blocks of restricted airspace at Camp Grafton, effective Thursday, that will allow practical training closer to home for the wing.

Currently, the only Predator training sites in the United States are at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., and Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. According to Gibney, Predator pilots from all over the nation could come to Camp Grafton to practice their mission in North Dakota’s sparsely-populated skies.

The 119th’s Predators are remotely piloted from Fargo by the wing’s 30 pilots, but will be based at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Gibney, himself a Predator pilot, said he expects flights, or sorties, to begin in late September or early October.

Before that, he said, the wing will send a crew to Grand Forks to conduct preflight tests and to monitor air traffic patterns in the area.

Civilian concerns

The new restricted airspace will be a block 500 to 9,999 feet above sea level over Camp Grafton South, a base operated by the National Guard between Devils Lake and Jamestown.

Inside the airspace, pilots will be allowed to practice with lasers used in battle to designate targets for laser-guided bombs and missiles; the lasers are intense and can cause eye damage. During training exercises, restricted to certain times, commercial and private aircraft are prohibited from flying through this airspace.

The FAA approved the restricted airspace despite protests from pilot groups, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which argued that its pilots fear they may not be alerted about the use of lasers in their immediate flight paths.

The FAA determined, however, that the impact would be minimal because of the area’s low traffic volume. It said an average of four flights cut through the area daily. About 10 percent are military or air taxi flights, while 90 percent are general aviation flights, including UND training flights.

In contrast, the airspace near the Nevada and California training areas are much more crowded, according to Gibney. “There’s a lot of other aircraft in those areas, and a lot of commercial aircraft around those areas.”

Practice space

Currently, Gibney said, once the 119th’s Predator pilots receive initial instruction, the only ongoing training is through flight simulators. The Camp Grafton site will offer practical experience.

Targets will be located on small buildings or imbedded in the hilly terrain of the 9,300-acre Camp Grafton South.

Exercises will involve focusing lasers on the targets, Gibney said. “The laser itself is not used much during the flight,” he said, “less than a minute per simulated engagement.”

Initially, the Guard will fly one or two sorties a week to Camp Grafton, likely increasing in time to three to four over time, he said.

“A lot of it will be dependent on real-world situations,” he said.


Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald


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