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General Atomics drone training academy graduates first class of pilots in Grand Forks

A Predator unmanned aircraft at Grand Forks Air Force Base. File photo.

The first class of drone pilots has graduated from a new training academy near Grand Forks.

Three pilots graduated from a training program created by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., a major manufacturer of drones, radars, and electro-optic and related mission systems solutions.

The company announced Monday that its first round of graduates completed their training Aug. 12. The graduation of five additional pilots and six sensor operators will follow shortly, a news release said.

"Our first graduates have benefited from safe, effective, cutting-edge training that will enable them to support flight operations for our global customers," President of Aircraft Systems David R. Alexander said in a statement. "We look forward to providing the same high-quality training services to our customers' air crews to meet their growing demands in the very near future."

The company has a temporary training hangar set up at Grand Sky, an aviation business park under construction on Grand Forks Air Force Base. Construction on a permanent General Atomics facility is expected to wrap up next year.

The training academy educates air crews on how to operate General Atomics aircraft such as the Predator and Reaper lines.

Students can complete their training in as little as two months. Pilots complete 36 hours of flights, 59 hours of simulator lessons and 114 hours of academic studies, the release said. Sensor operators—people trained to operate cameras and other data collecting equipment on drones—complete the training in similar time with slightly fewer hours required for graduation.

In establishing the academy, General Atomics has said it seeks to help alleviate a drone pilot shortage occurring nationwide.