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General Atomics employee outlines company's journey to N.D. training academy

Though he got his start in aviation by jumping out of planes as a Marine, Everett Dunnick now oversees one of the newest training facilities for unmanned aircraft in the country.

Though he got his start in aviation by jumping out of planes as a Marine, Everett Dunnick now oversees one of the newest training facilities for unmanned aircraft in the country.

Dunnick is the program manager of the flight training academy that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. is constructing at Grand Sky technology park near Grand Forks Air Force Base. He spoke to a crowd gathered Thursday for Drone Biz, a monthly event that features speakers and networking opportunities for those interested in learning more about the drone industry.

General Atomics, which manufactures airframes such as the Predator and Reaper, built a temporary hangar at Grand Sky earlier this year and has started construction on a permanent building.

"We understood at the offset that we needed to get something up and in operation," Dunnick said. "And true to our history, we took an expeditious approach, and we got the stuff that we need in place to get airplanes flying."

Students will continue to use the temporary hangar to learn until the nearly 20,000-square-foot academy building is finished this coming summer.

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At anytime, 12 to 15 students are taking courses through the facility, which employs about 25 full-time staff ranging from instructors to maintenance personnel. In all, about 100 pilots and crew members are expected to be trained at the academy per year initially.

The company's Grand Sky facilities are readily expandable, Dunnick said, a useful characteristic as the unmanned industry continues to grow and the need for training climbs with it.

The academy's formation has roots in a growing demand for unmanned aircraft pilots across the globe. General Atomics offers training services to both U.S. and international clients and needed more space to conduct that training. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain have been highlighted as potential training customers.

Accommodating current and future needs would require the company to create an academy.

"We looked across the country, even at some offshore islands, and tried to think outside the box," Dunnick said. "Where could we locate a purpose-filled academy with purpose-filled equipment in place and get into the airspace?"

North Dakota emerged as the top prospect, and the company broke ground on the academy last November. About 10 months later, the first Predator aircraft took to the sky under command of the academy's first graduates.

Drone Biz is held from noon to 1 p.m. every second Thursday of the month at rotating locations.

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