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Global Hawk Celebrates 20th Birthday

An RQ-4 Global Hawk is pictured in this undated photograph.

Credit: Northrop Grumman

Above: An RQ-4 Global Hawk is pictured in this undated photograph.

The Global Hawk unmanned plane, which was designed and first built in San Diego, celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first flight Wednesday.

The first Global Hawk was built by San Diego-based defense contractor Teledyne Ryan.

The original craft that first flew in 1998. The 30-minute flight carried the plane up to 30,000 feet. The current version can fly much higher for more than a day. The craft carries long-range cameras with infrared capability and sophisticated radar capable of using radio waves to create images of the ground.

Northrup Grumman absorbed Teledyne Ryan in 1999 and now owns and makes the plane. Design work continues in San Diego, but the plane is now built elsewhere in California. The GlobalHawk is flown around the world and it even helped during San Diego's 2007 firestorms.

"When the big fires were engulfing a lot of the area where we work in Rancho Bernardo the state of California made an emergency call to the Air Force and the Air Force deployed Global Hawks to overfly the area and provide assistance to CalFire," said Alfredo Ramirez, Northrup Grumman director of engineering in San Diego.

The GlobalHawk can fly for up to 27 hours without landing and the pilot can be located on the ground half a world away. It got its first major real-world assignment after the World Trade Center towers came down during the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001.

"We were called into service and rushed out into the field. We weren't even operational yet, but the success that was envisioned for this platform became evident and we got deployed. Air Force started operating them and we've never come back," Ramirez said.

The first Global Hawk boasted a 116-foot wingspan and could carry 2000 pounds when it took off. The current version has a 132-foot wingspan and can carry three thousand pounds.

The craft is for surveillance only and does not carry weapons.

The Global Hawk unmanned plane, which was designed and first built in San Diego, celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first flight Wednesday.

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