Wallops Pilot Flies for Science
NASA research pilot Rich Rogers flies low, cool, slow, and true; especially while flying science missions over remote and sometimes very cold areas of our planet. Rogers, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy commander who flew combat patrol aircraft, now flies scientists and their instruments in the same type of patrol aircraft he flew in the military. Instead of looking for submarines, terrorists, or drug runners, he now helps scientists obtain and verify their airborne science research data.
“We do the research version of bush pilot flying. We take off and land in remote areas and fly over tundra, river beds, glaciers, volcanoes, mountains, remote oceans, and even wildfires,” Rogers explains. “Everything is planned.”
“Flying is a lot of fun, just like playing a video game, but we have to really know our video game or flight technology and flight environment well. It is precision flying of science flight lines,” says Rogers. He still has to continuously watch the landscape, look for other small aircraft and helicopters, and monitor the weather. “So we fly low and slow on a majority of our airborne science research flights,” says Rogers.
Research flying for NASA is incredibly precise since the accuracy of the scientific data depends on the accuracy of the flight. “When we are calibrating instruments or under flying a satellite’s track, the margin of error is sometimes only a couple of inches,” he explains.
Most small aircraft fly at 2,000 to 10,000 feet. “We recently flew at 500 feet above the ground over most of Alaska which is only seconds away from hitting the surface,” says Rogers. “You can never relax mentally or physically, you must be completely focused,” he says. “But the views are spectacular.”
Even gas stops are challenging. The small plane has a 4 . hour gas tank which has to get them to one or only two gas stations both of which are three hours from their base and separated by a mountain range.
Rogers also takes great care in preparing for a camping trip he never hopes to take. The aircraft carries survival bags for everyone including Arctic-rated clothing. “When I am not flying our NASA research aircraft, I still thoroughly map out our family vacations,” says Rogers. “I never have to stop to ask for directions! Adventure and discovery are always just ahead!”