The first of the next generation of Northrop Grumman’s Block 40 configuration RQ-4 Global Hawk has successfully completed its first flight. The two hour flight took the aircraft from Northrop Grumman’s manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California to Edwards Air Force Base, California. Designated AF-18, the Block 40 configuration of the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) will carry the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) active electronically scanned array radar that will help warfighters detect, track and identify stationary and moving targets.

Northrop Grumman tout the Global Hawk as providing the safest and most cost-effective and efficient means of gathering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information over a vast geographic area without putting anyone in harm’s way. Flying at altitudes up to 60,000 feet for more than 32 hours per sortie at speeds approaching 340 knots, the MP-RTIP-equipped Block 40 Global Hawk can persistently see through most type of weather, day or night and is the world's first fully autonomous HALE UAS.

The aircraft is flown autonomously by flight control software under the direct supervision of a pilot. The pilot does not physically manipulate the control surfaces in flight but instead, he commands the computer to take action when needed, or the system can be left alone and fly a complete pre-programmed mission.

Takeoff and landing are software controlled and poor weather is not a limiting factor for operation like it can be for other unmanned systems. The company says this allows the pilot and crew to focus on executing the national security intelligence collection mission, collecting thousands of pixels full of critical security intelligence, while the aircraft is flown by the sophisticated flight control computer.

When fully fueled for flight, the Block 20/30/40 weighs approximately 32,250 pounds. More than half the system's components are constructed of lightweight, high-strength composite materials, including its wings, wing fairings, empennage, engine cover, nacelles, and three radomes. Its main fuselage is standard aluminum, semi-monocoque construction.

This first flight marks the end of an era, as Global Hawk production acceptance activities will transition in the near future from Edwards Air Force Base to Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, to improve efficiency and flow of company products. The AF-18 is the eleventh of the next-gen Global Hawk Block 20/30/40s to arrive at Edwards and is the first of 15 Block 40 Global Hawk aircraft scheduled for fielding to Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota, in 2010.