SkyGuardian’s History-Making, Trans-Atlantic Flight to RIAT

An MQ-9B SkyGuardian serves as a static display at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, England, on July 14, 2018, after making the first-ever trans-Atlantic flight by a medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely pilot aircraft just a few days earlier. Staff photo by Amy McCullough.

RAF FAIRFORD, ENGLAND—A General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., MQ-9B SkyGuardian completed the first-ever trans-Atlantic flight for a medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft as it landed here for the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 11.

The aircraft, which took off from Grand Forks, N.D., where its pilots were based throughout the flight, flew for 24-hours and two minutes, though officials estimated it still had 13 to 15 hours of endurance left when it landed.

“We knew we wanted to do something that really showed the strong relationship with our RAF customer in commemoration of the [Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary],” Rob Walker, GA-ASI senior director of strategic development, told Air Force Magazine. “RIAT really is a show that celebrates RAF, so it rapidly became a no-brainer to select.”

The aircraft will be dismantled and shipped back to the United States on Monday, where it will continue to undergo development and air worthiness testing, which will take place mostly at the Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz.

The Royal Air Force has ordered 16 of the aircraft, which are expected to enter service in the early 2020s. The Royal Air Force’s 31 Squadron, which currently flies the Panavia Tornado, will be the first RAF unit to operate the Protector, the name given to it by the Royal Air Force.

The Protector “leverages the 5 million flight hours-plus from the Predator series, but we basically redesigned it from the ground up to be compliant with European air worthiness criteria,” said Walker. The aircraft has longer wings than the Block 5 MQ-9s and rather than a centralized fuel system, it can carry roughly 3,000 pounds of fuel in its wings, significantly increasing its endurance. Though the aircraft on display at RIAT was not weaponized, there are nine points on the Protector for weapons and the “vision” is that it will carry MBDA’s Brimstone ground attack missiles and Raytheon UK Paveway IV laser-guided bombs, thought it also will be equipped to carry Hellfires.

Walker said several other countries have expressed interest in the aircraft, noting its presence at the show has been well received.