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Air Force buys souped-up, stealthy version of Predator drone

December 30, 2011 | 10:19 am

General Atomics' Avenger, also known as Predator C, in mid-flight

Adding to its growing arsenal of robotic aircraft, the Air Force has purchased a new high-flying hunter-killer drone.

For $15 million, the military bought one stealthy, jet-powered drone, dubbed Avenger, from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. -- the same San Diego company that builds MQ-1 Predators and larger MQ-9 Reapers.

The remotely piloted Predators and Reapers have become a central element for the Obama administration to hunt and destroy targets in the Middle East. The Avenger, also known as Predator C, is General Atomics’ third and latest version of these drones.

With a length of 44 feet and maximum takeoff weight of 15,800 pounds, the Avenger is larger, faster and can carry more weaponry than its predecessors.

For example, the propeller-driven Reaper is 36 feet long and has a maximum takeoff weight of 10,500 pounds. The largest bombs it carries weigh 500 pounds and hang from its wings.

The Avenger, on the other hand, has an internal bomb bay like other modern fighter and bomber jets. It is designed to carry 2,000-pound bombs, as well as heavier camera and sensor packages.

Both the Reaper and Avenger have 66-foot wingspans with a maximum altitude of around 50,000 feet.

The Reaper can stay aloft for 30 hours at time –- 10 hours longer than the Avenger. But with the power of a turbofan engine, the Avenger’s top speed is around 460 mph, much faster than the Reaper's 276 mph.

General Atomics first flew the Avenger back in April 2009 at the company's Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility in Palmdale. But even with more than two years of flight tests under its belt, the Avenger is strictly a test aircraft for the Air Force to evaluate its “performance characteristics,” said Jennifer Cassidy, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

“There is no intention to deploy the aircraft in the war in Afghanistan at this time,” she said.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: General Atomics' Avenger in mid-flight. Credit: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

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