RAF FAIRFORD, ENGLAND—A General Atomics Aeronautical
Systems, Inc., MQ-9B SkyGuardian completed the first-ever trans-Atlantic
flight for a medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft as it
landed here for the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 11.
The aircraft, which took off from Grand Forks, N.D., where
its pilots were based throughout the flight, flew for 24-hours and two minutes, though officials
estimated it still had 13 to 15 hours of endurance left when it landed.
“We knew we wanted to do something that really showed the
strong relationship with our RAF customer in commemoration of the [Royal Air
Force’s 100th anniversary],” Rob Walker, GA-ASI senior director of strategic development, told Air Force Magazine. “RIAT
really is a show that celebrates RAF, so it rapidly became a no-brainer to
The aircraft will be dismantled and shipped back to the
United States on Monday, where it will continue to undergo development and air
worthiness testing, which will take place mostly at the Yuma Proving Ground in
The Royal Air Force
has ordered 16 of the aircraft, which are expected to enter service in the
early 2020s. The Royal Air Force’s 31 Squadron, which currently flies the
Panavia Tornado, will be the first RAF unit to operate the Protector, the name given to it by the Royal Air Force.
The Protector “leverages the 5 million flight hours-plus
from the Predator series, but we basically redesigned it from the ground up to
be compliant with European air worthiness criteria,” said Walker. The aircraft has longer
wings than the Block 5 MQ-9s and rather than a centralized fuel system, it can
carry roughly 3,000 pounds of fuel in its wings, significantly increasing its
endurance. Though the aircraft on display at RIAT was not weaponized, there are
nine points on the Protector for weapons and the “vision” is that it will carry MBDA’s
Brimstone ground attack missiles and Raytheon UK Paveway IV laser-guided bombs,
thought it also will be equipped to carry Hellfires.
Walker said several other countries have
expressed interest in the aircraft, noting its presence at the show has been
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