A first: Unmanned plane crosses the Pacific

Monday, April 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(ADELAIDE, Australia) - A robotic U.S. spy plane became the first unmanned aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean, cruising out of the night sky to touch down Monday at an Australian air force base.

The Air Force's Global Hawk drone arrived at the base outside the southern city of Adelaide at 8:41 p.m., completing the 8,600-mile trip 14 minutes ahead of schedule, said Australian Defense Force spokesman Darryl Johnston.

After taking off from Edwards Air Force Base in California before dawn Sunday, the spy plane flew at 65,000 feet, well above other air traffic and the nasty weather that plagues the Pacific. Ground crews in Australia monitored the flight but did not control it as the plane followed a preprogrammed route.

The awkward-looking plane resembles a killer whale, thanks to a bulbous nose that hides an antenna four feet in diameter.

On takeoff, the Global Hawk's mammoth wings - longer than a Boeing 737's - droop under 15,000 pounds of fuel that accounts for 60 percent of the aircraft's weight. The plane's distinctive V-shaped tail frames the Rolls-Royce engine that straddles its fuselage.

Having landed in Australia, the plane will now take part in combined military exercises over the following six weeks.

Australia is interested in using the Global Hawk to patrol its northern coast. Backers of the reconnaissance plane say it is perfect for the task, since it can fly at high altitudes for extended periods of time, all the while using its high-powered cameras to image the ground and ocean below.

Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Ryan Aero Center designed the plane to fly as far as 1,395 miles from its base, crisscross a target for 24 hours to acquire radar, infrared and black-and-white images, and then return home.

The U.S. Air Force named the plane the ``Southern Cross II'' to honor the first aircraft to fly from the United States to Australia. The original Southern Cross, a three-engine Fokker that departed from Oakland, Calif., and its crew made the trip in several legs in 1928.

Click here to learn more about the Hawk.