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Hurricane Aircraft -- Technological Marvels That Fly Through Storms
NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration all use aircraft to study and track hurricanes. Following are examples of the aircraft used.

Image of a DC 8 aircraft. Image to right: NASA's DC-8 aircraft. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

The NASA DC-8 is a four-engine jet transport that has been highly modified to support the Agency's science mission. The medium-altitude aircraft has a 148-foot wingspan and is 157 feet long. It can fly at altitudes from 1,000 to 42,000 feet for up to 12 hours, although most science missions average six to 10 hours. The aircraft has a range of 5,400 nautical miles and can carry 30,000 pounds of scientific instruments and equipment. NASA acquired the former commercial airliner in 1985. It was based at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., until late 1997 when it moved to the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.

Image of an ER 2 aircraft. Image to right: NASA's ER-2 aircraft. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

NASA's two ER-2 aircraft are platforms for a variety of high-altitude science missions. The aircraft are used for Earth science and atmospheric sensor research and development, satellite calibration and data validation. The ER-2s are capable of carrying a maximum payload of 2,600 pounds of experiments distributed in the equipment bay, nose bay and wing pods. Most missions last about six hours with ranges of 2,200 nautical miles. The aircraft reach cruise altitudes of above 65,000 feet within 20 minutes. Cruising speeds are 410 knots, or 467 miles per hour, at altitude. The aircraft are 63 feet long, with a wingspan of 104 feet and the top of the vertical tails are 16 feet above ground when the aircraft is on the bicycle-type landing gear. The ER-2s were acquired in 1981 and 1989 and were based at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., until late 1997 when they moved to the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.

Other Aircraft Used in Hurricane Research

Image of a WC 130 J Hercules aircraft Image to right: WC-130J Hercules aircraft. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Hurricane Hunters of the U.S. Air Force's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. fly the WC-130J Hercules aircraft. The WC-130J Hercules aircraft features a glass cockpit packed with the latest in computer assisted flight and navigational controls. These systems enhance the situational awareness of crews and allow them to focus on their in-flight tasks.

Image of a WP 3 Orion aircraft. Image to right: NOAA's WP-3 Orion aircraft. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA

NOAA flies a WP-3 "Orion" -- a four-engine turboprop plane -- into storms at altitudes below 27,000 feet.

Two of the world's premier research aircraft, the renowned NOAA WP-3D Orions, participate in a wide variety of national and international meteorological, oceanographic and environmental research programs in addition to their widely known use in hurricane research and reconnaissance. These versatile turboprop aircraft are equipped with an unprecedented variety of scientific instrumentation, radars and recording systems for both in-situ and remote sensing measurements of the atmosphere, the Earth and its environment. Obtained as new aircraft from the Lockheed production line in the mid-70's, these robust and well maintained aircraft have led NOAA's continuing effort to monitor and study hurricanes and other severe storms, the quality of the atmosphere, the state of the ocean and its fish population, and climate trends.

The WP-3D Orion aircraft are on standby or deployed for hurricane research and reconnaissance 120 days each year. Each aircraft averages between 90 and 120 days deployed around the globe for other research projects, while flying 300 to 400 hours every year. Remaining days are devoted to system integration and calibration, aircraft maintenance, and pilot proficiency training.

Image of a Gulfstream aircraft. Image to right: NOAA's Gulfstream IV aircraft. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA

The Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV) is a high altitude, high speed, twin-turbofan jet aircraft acquired by AOC in 1996. The G-IV is currently configured for operational support of the National Hurricane Center synoptic surveillance mission and is expected to provide support for NOAA programs for many years to come. This mission is designed to collect, process and transmit vertical atmospheric soundings in the environment of the hurricane. The principle tool used for this task is the GPS dropwindsonde.

The dropsonde is released from the G-IV measuring and transmitting back to the aircraft the pressure, temperature, humidity, and GPS Doppler frequency shifts as it descends to earth. The Doppler shifts are used to compute the horizontal and vertical wind components. After analysis and processing of the dropsonde data the information is formatted into a TEMP-DROP message using the standard WMO format. The TEMP-DROP message is then transmitted to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center for inclusion into the global and hurricane model runs. The TEMP-DROP message is also provided to the hurricane forecaster providing real-time observations depicting the synoptic patterns surrounding the hurricane.

Image of an aerosonde robotic aircraft. Image to right: Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: Credit: Jon Becker, Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft
Copyright: Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft. Please contact Aerosonde for guidelines about the use of this photo.

The Aerosonde is an inexpensive, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is an ideal platform for conducting weather observations and scientific research in hurricanes or in Antarctica. With endurance of over 30 hours, a single Aerosonde can obtain observations in regions that are inaccessible without expensive ships or manned aircraft. Because of the low cost of theAerosonde, it can fly in regions that are deemed too dangerous for manned aircraft (such as at low levels under high-wind conditions).

As part of the CAMEX-4 hurricane study in 2001, NASA funded the flight of several unpiloted aerial vehicles called the Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft. Small, robotic aircraft designed for collection of meteorological data over oceans and remote areas, the Aerosondes will operate over the North Atlantic Ocean taking observations in the lower atmosphere. The Aerosondes are managed in conjunction with the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Rob Gutro
Goddard Space Flight Center