The Global Hawk has been flying for close to 15 years, and its development has been a twisting road filled with dead ends and wandering requirements. After over $10B spent and almost 50 airframes produced I ventured to Edwards AFB to get a rare close up look at what we actually paid for.
The Global Hawk family just hit 100,000 hours of combat and operational support flying in its career, and the first Global Hawk ever built has just flown its 100th mission for NASA. Undoubtedly, these are serious milestone for a program that has struggled to mature and to secure its relevance within an Air Force that is plagued with often conflicting and wandering priorities.
Just after I arrived at Edwards AFB, as we were making our way out onto the airfield in the brilliant morning light for some shots around the sprawling super-base, a Global Hawk came rocketing off the runway, rotating sharply and steeply climbing to a couple hundred feet before making a hard, almost fighter-like break to the northeast. I was really struck by what I had just seen. These aircraft, with their massive glider like wings, always seemed like under-powered and fragile albatrosses, well apparently that assumption was very wrong.
Later in the day I would find out that the aircraft I saw make such a dramatic departure was on its way to be delivered to Beale AFB. Once the home to the SR-71 Blackbird, and still home to the U-2 Dragon Lady and MC-12 Liberty fleet, Beale AFB, the USAF's premier reconnaissance base, is also the operational Global Hawk fleet's primary nest.
Although I have seen Global Hawks in person from a distance before at Edwards and I have been up-close and personal with NASA's commandeered early development models, the first impression I had when approaching the 7.5-ton aircraft in its secure hangar was just how large it truly is.
Compared to Predator and Reaper, the Honda Civic and Accord of unmanned combat aircraft, the Block 30 Global Hawk, with its 130.9-foot wingspan, simply dwarfs them. It is an expansive and somewhat elegant machine, and because of its flowing lines, bulging forward and aft fuselage, and expansive laminar flow wings, it almost looks organic, as if it was grown, not built.
The Global Hawk was originally designed by unmanned aircraft pioneer Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, which was bought by Northrop Grumman in 1999. The aircraft was proposed to fulfill the Tier II+ requirement put forward by the USAF in the early 1990s, a competition that it won.
The Tier II+ requirement called for a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft system, that would have roughly the same capabilities as the U-2 Dragon Lady, but would be able to stay on-station for a much longer period of time. In addition, this new unmanned system would be affordable (with the cost about equal to an F-16) and have a lower cost-per-flight hour than the U-2. It would also be able to carry an optical and infrared camera, a synthetic aperture radar, and an advanced electronic surveillance suite simultaneously. At least that was the plan.