Airborne spy takes to South Pacific skies

A flight from the US to New Zealand and back is well within its range.

One of America’s largest and most sophisticated unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, more commonly known as spy drones, is operating in the South Pacific.

Last week a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk flew from Edwards Air Force Base in California to a point north of Tahiti and back.

During the mission, which lasted almost 24 hours, the drone flew at a height of 65,000ft at a speed of almost 650km/h.

Operated by Nasa, it is being used to study climate change in a project known as the Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX).

In 2001 the Global Hawk made aviation history when it completed the first non-stop flight across the Pacific by a drone from California to South Australia, a distance of 13,840km.

The US operated them on top secret spy missions out of the Edinburgh Air Force Base near Adelaide to Afghanistan for at least six years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The drones missions were uncovered by local aviation enthusiasts and reported on ABC television’s Foreign Correspondent programme.

Over the years Global Hawks have been used extensively by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, completing more than 4300 combat hours.

They have been used to survey large areas with pinpoint accuracy, highlighting military targets.

The big, jet-powered drones, which have a 35m wingspan, are controlled by ground-based pilots thousands of kilometres away in much the same way as flight simulation enthusiasts fly aircraft on their home computers – except this is for real.

The Global Hawk has a range of around 25,000km and can remain airborne for up to 42 hours.

So a flight from the US to New Zealand and back is well within its range.

Trying to spot one, though, will be difficult as it flies around 30,000ft higher than most commercial jet airliners.

View the Global Hawk: http://galonghaulnews.blogspot.co.nz/2013/02/odd-ball-over-south-pacific.html

A map of its flight path: http://flightaware.com/live/flight/NASA872

rvaughan@nbr.co.nz

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