NASA Global Hawk Takeoff

Both the Air Force and NASA are fairly open about their Global Hawk programs so there are plenty of great photos and videos online (see below). The aircraft were built for unarmed surveillance missions, and a few early-model Air Force RQ-4s were transferred to NASA.

The space agency has two Global Hawks, produced by defense firm Northrop Grumman for DARPA originally.  Right now, the aircraft are performing hurricane monitoring missions from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Their home base is  in California.

As if to make them look more friendly and peaceful than the Air Force Global Hawk “drones,” the NASA aircraft are painted white.

The space agency posted this video of Global Hawk 871 taking off from Wallops in September 2013. Notice the chase car following behind. The aircraft’s sibling is GH 872.

The remotely piloted aircraft, as the Air Force insists on calling them, can fly up to 60,000 feet for 22-30 hours, meaning they can fly above the hurricane.

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Credit: NASA

Oddly, Air Force Global Hawks historically have had poor mission availability rates in the Pacific region primarily because of local thunderstorms and typhoons. The reason is, if the aircraft encounter adverse weather they will turn around and come back because the pilot has limited situational awareness when it comes to weather. The pilot in the cockpit cannot see and avoid thunderstorms, and so missions are scrubbed if there is a chance of encountering adverse weather along the way.

NASA missions, I’m sure, are designed around a particular weather event, so the pilot would known exactly how long he/she has to reach the correct altitude.

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Credit: NASA

From 2015-2016, the Air Force is adding new adverse weather capabilities to the RQ-4B, primarily a weather radar and anti-icing .

James Drew