Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody led the high-ranking visit at Grand Forks Air Force Base on Nov. 26. It was part of a three-day trip in which the Air Force leaders saw thousands of Airmen in Grand Forks and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, learning about their missions and lives and answering their questions.
They also came to get an up-close and personal look at UND's UAS enterprise, which is housed in a large building on base ― a major hub for UAS activity in the U.S. military arsenal.
In fact, it was UND students who did the instructing for the general and his entourage. Meagan Kaiser and Andrew Regenhard, UND seniors in the schools UAS program, had 12 minutes with the general and his staff to explain all things UND UAS. And Al Palmer, director of UND's UAS program, said the students did a bang-up job.
"We got a nice long thank-you note from Andrew and Meagan for giving them the opportunity to meet with Gen. Welsh and his staff," Palmer said. "That was really a nice thing to get from those students."
The Grand Forks Air Force Base's 319th Air Base Wing hosted the UND officials and the visiting leaders, who toured the 69th Reconnaissance Group's operations center. The group flies remotely piloted Global Hawk aircraft in support of operations worldwide. The average age of the Airmen assigned to this critical task is 24.
Welsh told Grand Forks Airmen they "are in the Wright Flyer" era of remotely piloted aircraft. He praised them for developing the capability even as they are flying combat missions in support of those in harm's way.
Welsh was intrigued by the cooperation between the local universities, local businesses, the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the active duty and Air National Guard units at Grand Forks to turn the area into a center of research for remotely piloted aircraft.
"This has the possibility to help not only the Air Force, but the military community, (the Department of) Homeland Security and all kinds of things," Welsh said in an interview on his return to Washington.
"I didn't realize how quickly that was coming together," the general added.
Palmer said he was pleased UND was able to help paint a synergistic picture for Gen. Welsh on just how well the University, Air Force Base, community and the entire region are working together on UAS operations.
Gen. Welsh's visit to UND's UAS program came on the heels of another big visit the week before by five prominent national and international UAS journalists. The group was the latest in a barrage of media that UND's UAS program has hosted in the last 24 months. The media delegation comprised writers from Aviation Week & Space Technology, Business Insider, Flight Global, National Defense magazine and Popular Science.
Palmer said Al Jazeera America also interviewed him just this week and expressed interest in coming to UND to cover the UND UAS program.
A recent review by aerospace officials shows that, since July 2011, more than 65 documented media engagements have taken place involving UND's UAS program.
Ninety percent of those media visits were by national and international journalists or media developers outside of North Dakota and Minnesota.
We're talking folks from The Washington Post, London Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC Rock Center with Brian Williams, CBS Sunday Morning Show, Time Magazine, CNN and CNN International, BBC World Service Radio, French TV, Korean Broadcasting Station, Turkey TV Stations, German ARD Television Network, Channel One Russia, and the Italian magazine L 'Espresso, to name a few.
Pretty impressive for a division that has no dedicated media relations staff to handle the throng.
"We're just very proud that our UAS program is getting similar recognition now to what our airplane and helicopter training programs have always deservedly received," Palmer said.
It's hard to know what notions these reporters and first-time visitors have about Grand Forks, N.D., or UND Aerospace. Maybe they envision a warehouse, a hangar or two and a couple of planes ― who knows?
"That's why we tell people who've never been here to go everywhere else first and then come to us, so they can see the difference," Palmer said. "People think we're this small flight school on the prairie; they really don't understand its magnitude until they come here and see it for themselves."
Oliver Routhe Skov, a broadcast journalist from Denmark, said he had a sense of what UND Aerospace was like from a recent New York Times story he'd read about the school's UAS program, still he was impressed with what he found when he actually got on campus.
He and Danish videographer Marie Klar visited UND Aerospace last June to produce a segment for a larger piece on UAS development in America. The show was destined for what Skov described as the "60 Minutes of Denmark."
Their reporting took them to places such as Washington, D.C., New York City, Illinois, Iowa and a town in rural Virginia that had recently banned the use of UAS out of privacy concerns.
At points along the way, Skov said, UND's UAS program kept coming up in conversations with other UAS industry contacts.
"They would say to us: 'go to UND. They are the best at what they do,'" Skov said. "So we quickly came to appreciate the fact that (UND) is well known. I found it very interesting that the University is becoming a market leader in this industry."
Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service, contributed to this report.