A flight of 80 hours and almost three minutes. More than three days. That’s the world record the Orion drone set last December, more than doubling the previous record set by a Global Hawk in 2001. It’s got a ridiculously long wing, 135 feet long, more than the height of a 12 story building. That and two turbo-diesel engines make Orion soar, sleek cousin to Phantom Eye and another pretender to the throne of... being another drone.

Orion is designed to achieve a maximum endurance of five days (120 hours). The Air Force chose Orion, built by Aurora Flight Sciences, for its Medium Altitude Global ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and Communications technology development program early in the Iraq war. The program was nicknamed MAGIC and sponsored by U.S. Central Command, the Middle East warfighters. With a 1,000 pound payload and a cruise speed of only 100 miles per hour, there is nothing unique about Orion except that it can stay in the air for a long time. It first flew on August 24, 2013. According to the Air Force, Orion “will provide ... a medium-altitude extreme persistence vehicle capable of a variety of applications, such as unmanned surveillance and communications relay.” It also has “strike potential.”

Though the experimental Orion has been conferred with the world endurance record, many other drones exist to handle the day-to-day needs of intelligence collection in low-threat parts of the world. So as CENTCOM largesse has dried up, Orion also has had to find a new sponsor and a new reason for being. Enter the stratospheric Orion, called HALL (High Altitude, Long Loiter) able to cruise at an altitude of 65,000 feet, powered by reciprocating engines consuming liquid hydrogen fuel. The Aurora and Boeing team has also sucked money out of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command to demonstrate high altitude flight.

Does Orion actually have a future? Well the true magic of the program is Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the state where Aurora Flight Sciences is based. At this point Congressional add-ons shepherded by the Senator, who just happens also to be the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, will be the only way the drone will continue to get Pentagon money. Need I say more?

Fun facts about Orion:

  • The world breaking flight required 1700 pounds of fuel, and was witnessed by National Aeronautic Association, the U.S. representative of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). FAI is the equivalent of Guinness World Records for aviation feats.
  • One of Aurora Flight Science’s talking points for the drone is Orion’s ability to “reduce number of bases needed for worldwide ops.” An interesting sell as the Pentagon points fingers over having to cut jobs due to budget cuts.
  • “A 120-hour endurance flight at 20,000 feet is planned for the near future,” according to the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.

[Images courtesy of Aurora Flight Sciences.]