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Barrow Bearings: Engineer Reflects on Arctic Experience
By: Mike Wusk and Kathy Barnstroff

It looks like spring has finally arrived in Hampton Roads, with sunny skies and temperatures heading toward the 70s.

That's not the weather forecast for some Langley employees who are braving the cold near Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of the United States. Nine hardy souls and one Langley aircraft are working there as part of the Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS) mission.

ARCTAS is aimed at learning more about the state of the Arctic atmosphere and reporting on the changes that have occurred as a result of pollution.

Six of the Barrow Nine are from the Research Services Directorate. Dale Bowser, Ed Kirby, Mark Hinton and Scott Sims maintain the B-200 King Air airplane and equipment. Rick Yasky is the pilot. Mike Wusk is the flight test engineer.

Three are from the Science Directorate. Chris Hostetler, Mike Obland and Ray Rogers are part of the High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL) team. HSRL is an instrument that characterizes small particles in the atmosphere called aerosols.

The Barrow Nine say they're working hard and in the first week accomplished seven research flights. But they're also trying to absorb a little local ambience, culture and cuisine. Wusk sends a daily email to the "lower 48" that shares some of the team's experiences.

B200 - Mike Obland.Image right: Researcher Mike Obland, walks to the aircraft while the bundled aircraft maintainer Mark Hinton looks on. Credit: Ray Rogers.

Here are some excerpts from what he calls "Barrow Bearings:"

April 2
After three long days of flying over the entirety of the cloud-covered continent of North America we finally made it to Barrow Alaska. I would have never believed that we could fly from Virginia to Barrow and not see the ground for more than about 10 minutes during the entire trip, but that is what happened. So no big scenery reports yet, although we did get some short glimpses of Billings, Juneau, and Anchorage from under the clouds. And we did get to see Mt. Elias sticking up above the clouds. At 18,000+ feet I had never heard of it before, but it is the second highest mountain in the US and Canada, right behind Denali (which was totally socked in).

All our team and equipment has seemingly made it to Barrow without any great incidences. The hangar and hotel accommodations here appear to be to everyone’s likings. The Mx (maintenance) guys have dubbed the hangar as “Club Barrow” thanks to the pool table in the break room. You have to be a pretty good pool player though to overcome the “non-levelness” of the table. The endless cycle of freezing and thawing permafrost seems to wreak havoc on building foundations around here. Although the building is as solid as they come around here in Barrow, it tends to remind you of a carnival house of mirrors with all the floors, doors, and hallways at weird angles and various states of levelness.

The weather here set a record high temp yesterday, about 26 degrees. It was actually a very pleasant day. It was a great day for a walk around the town of Barrow. I think everyone enjoyed the chance to rest up and get their bearings set around town.

Map of Barrow.Image left: Barrows location on a map. Credit: Kathy Barnstorff.

April 3 (first research flight)
Well, we have completed our first research flight out of Barrow. The weather at Barrow was great today. The temperatures dropped to the single digits but the skies were clear and the winds were relatively low. We completed a 2.4 hour flight, taking off around 1:00 PM local time. We headed north along the CALIPSO track and eventually ended up 175 nm north of Barrow. At altitude the skies were clear of clouds but there was definitely a substantial haze layer all around. I’m guessing that must be the “Arctic Haze” that we are here to find.

Looking below it really didn’t seem to matter whether you were over land or sea ice. It was just flat and white in every direction for as far as you could see. When we arrived at Barrow the other day the sea ice was actually sitting off-shore several miles. Today the winds and currents had brought it all back to shore. I am told that today is the opening day of Whaling season, but with the ice pack like it was today I am guessing that it will be awhile before we see any whales around here.

Spirits are high, and everyone is doing well. There was a great sunset over the arctic ice tonight as we came out of Pepe’s (restaurant). I didn’t have my camera handy (or I would have included a picture), but everyone else was climbing the snow banks trying to get pictures of it with their cameras. When they no longer want to stand on the snow pile and take pictures and are more interested in getting straight into the truck to stay warm, then it may be time to re-evaluate morale.

April 5 (flight cancelled due to poor weather for research)
Today is a local festival here in Barrow to celebrate the opening of whaling season. Whaling is an integral part of the local culture and heritage and this festival is one of the bigger things that happen around here. There was a parade through the streets (fire trucks, snowmobiles, fancy cars, candy being thrown out to all the kids), then there were some competitions down on the frozen lagoon between the different whaling captains and their teams.

Mike Wusk - local whaling culture.Image right: Flight test engineer Mike Wusk, takes in the local whaling culture of Barrow. Credit: Ray Rogers.

The highlight for us was the chance to ride a dogsled. There was a guy there with an 12-dog sled team and he was giving short rides. Probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance for most of us. Even the locals here like the folks operating the hotel said it was a rare event around here that even they haven’t gotten to do. It was pretty cool. They were beautiful, powerful dogs. Watch out Iditarod, here comes the NASA team next year.

There are quite a few places to eat but amazingly almost all of them have the same menu, which is everything, Pizza, hamburgers, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, seafood, steaks, salads, subs. I guess they have to be pretty flexible to try and get all the business they can. The food in most places has been very good, some better than others at certain items, all kind of pricey, but usually plenty big servings. So don’t worry nobody is starving up here.

Some local observations regarding the cost of living here.
• Breakfast out - $12-15
• Lunch out - $15-25
• Dinner out - $20-45
• Bowl of soup - $10-16
• Can of soup at Grocery store - $5
• Gallon of milk - $8-9
• Gallon of Gas - $4.40
• No Movie Theatre
• Admission to the Barrow Heritage Center - $5
• Admission to the High School Gym and Weight Room – Free
• Admission to the Barrow Rec Center - $1
• Bag of chips - $3-5
• Can of Coke - $2
• 12-pack of Beer - (Flown in from down south) PRICELESS

April 8 (two flights)
We pasted a major milestone with the first flight today. At the conclusion of the morning flight we have completed 500.5 research hours with the HSRL instrument. From the first checkout flights in Dec ’05, through the MILAGRO, GoMACCS, San Joaquin Valley, CHAPS, Caribbean, and ARCTAS deployments, plus a ton of CALIPSO validations flights this achievement represents a lot of hard work and dedication on behalf of everyone involved.

I don’t think any aircraft that we have had in the last 20 years has flown as many hours on one aircraft (over 2.5 years, ~168 sorties) for essentially one project.

Congratulations to everyone!

April 9 (one long flight)
The weather at Barrow today was about has nice have we have seen in Barrow. The temperatures are getting a little colder, but the sun was out and the sky was relatively clear. There is almost always a haze in the air at altitude.

Mike Obland at school.Image leftt: Researcher Mike Obland, talks to Barrow third graders at a local school. Credit: Ray Rogers.

This morning Ray R., Mike O., Chris H., and I went to the local elementary school and talked to the third grade classes (5 classes, about 90 kids). We had met one of the teachers last week during the festival and arranged the visit then.

The kids were well behaved and had lots of great questions. Mike Obland even wore in his bright orange exposure suit. It was a great visit for all concerned. I think Ray, Mike, and Chris got some good training on how to deal with 6-7 year olds.

April 10 (one flight) The weather at Barrow this morning was questionable for awhile. We had a low layer of ice fog that was covering everything with light frozen precipitation. Even the icicles on the buildings had little fuzzy bits of frozen crystals on them. The temperatures were as low as we have seen at about -8 F, with a wind chill down around -18F. As forecast though the ice fog cleared right around 1300 L and left relatively clear skies around the airfield.

Our own Mike Obland is one of the scientists writing blogs for the Discovery Channel. Check them out at

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