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Departing commander sees great future for GFAFB

Grand Forks Air Force Base's unmanned aircraft mission is just the beginning of what unmanned aircraft will mean for the region and the state, base commander Col. John Michel told the Economic Development Association of North Dakota on Tuesday.

Col. John Michel
Col. John Michel

Grand Forks Air Force Base's unmanned aircraft mission is just the beginning of what unmanned aircraft will mean for the region and the state, base commander Col. John Michel told the Economic Development Association of North Dakota on Tuesday.

"We are where Microsoft was in 1980," he exulted to group members meeting at a conference at Grand Forks' Alerus Center.

Michel has been base commander since June 2008. His focus since that time has been to open up the base to non-military missions. He's moving Nov. 14 to Scott Air Force Base, Ill., to be Air Mobility Command's executive officer.

In an enthusiastic speech and in a conversation with the Herald afterwards, Michel lister a slew of opportunities that are here, soon to be here and could be here.

UND is already opening a training center at the base for unmanned aircraft pilots.

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Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls is close to signing a major contract with Northrop Grumman to train unmanned aircraft maintenance crews, according to Michel.

He'll be meeting with the chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, he said, which would mean another ally for the Grand Forks area as it works to take advantage of the base's mission.

That mission encompasses both of the Air Force's major unmanned platforms, Predators and Global Hawks, Michel said, making the base the only one to have a wing of mixed unmanned aircraft. Having the support structures for both, he said, makes it easier to grab other missions.

"We're a base looking for a mission and we're hungry," he said.

With the support structure in place, he said, the Grand Forks area could become the high tech center for unmanned aircraft, military and civilian. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will find out if it wants unmanned aircraft to survey crops and fight fires and state highway departments will find they want aircraft to survey road conditions and find stranded motorists, he said.

All the stars are aligned, Michel said, except one. "When I got here 16 months ago, I didn't know what to expect. I saw the movie 'Fargo' and I freaked out. We have an image problem."

If people around the nation think of North Dakota at all they think of the cold and that movie, he said, they don't think "high tech."

Community and state leaders, he said, need to work to change that perception. For his part, he said, he'll be watching Grand Forks and "I will do what I can to tell our story."

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Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: THIEF RIVER FALLS
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