Liberty Alumnus and Adjunct Online Professor Flies Unmanned Aircraft for Over Eight Days

Anyone could agree that watching paint dry for eight days, 50 minutes and 47 seconds would be tedious and uninteresting. 

However, change some letters in the words “paint” and “dry” and you have the words “plane” and “fly.”  

Jonathan Washburn, a senior unmanned aerial systems (UAS) pilot, Liberty graduate and adjunct professor for Liberty University Online, watched a plane fly for that length of time. In fact, he flew it — not from inside the plane, but from the ground, using hardware and software to control the aircraft. 

The flight set a record for the longest UAS flight for that aircraft, owned by Platform Aerospace, the company that Washburn works for. 

The most stunning part, however, might just be that it was done with only one tank of gas.

Washburn studied aeronautics and video production to obtain an interdisciplinary studies degree from Liberty. He graduated in 2006 with plans to fly military aircraft, but medical issues prevented him from doing so. Washburn started at Platform Aerospace, based in Hollywood, Maryland, in June of 2021. 

For Washburn, the job is a perfect fit and a combination of his two favorite things — robotics and aviation. 

The actual flight took place at Edwards Aerospace in California. Washburn and his crew had to control the plane entirely from the ground. They spent 12-hour shifts monitoring the hardware and software to communicate with the plane while the plane flew in orbits for over a week. 

The hardest part about the flight, according to Washburn, was ensuring that the plane was healthy and that whoever was on duty was attentive to the flight. Someone had to be on duty to watch the plane 24/7. 

Liberty alumnus Jonathan Washburn piloted the world-record flight of an
unmanned aerial system at Edwards Aerospace in California. Photo provided.

“We were making sure we were always ready for anything,” Washburn said. 

The plane itself made new strides regarding how UAS can be flown — something that its makers had known from its creation. 

“It’s wild how far this aircraft pushes ahead,” Washburn said. “As the aircraft was developed, developers realized they had (an) aircraft that could work this.” The fight was initiated with the intention of flying indefinitely, but its central purpose was to see how far the aircraft could go on one tank of gas and how long a crew could sustain said aircraft while not being inside it.

When the gas tank started running low, it became apparent that time was also running low. Eight days in, the previous record for this aircraft of five days had already been broken.

For Washburn, it was a thin line to walk. 

“We were constantly balancing risk versus reward,” he said, referring to how they decided to bring the plane down. 

There were also weather considerations, too, but it was time to land, and that was satisfactory for Washburn. 

“It was definitely landing that was the most rewarding part,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, there’s no record.” 

Even after this record-breaking flight, Washburn is looking ahead for opportunities to go farther. 

“We can still get even more out of this airplane,” he said. “We’re moving forward, constantly working to improve the aircraft.” 

Smith is the A-section copy editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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