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Fall 1997

WB-57 moves to Texas

Last month, the NCAR/NSF WB-57 moved to a new home at NASA Johnson Space Flight Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. NCAR's Atmospheric Technology Division (ATD), which managed and operated the aircraft up to now, will continue to make the aircraft available to the scientific research community.

The aircraft, obtained by NSF in 1994 and operated by NCAR, was grounded last summer following a string of problems, the most serious being in-flight failures of the trim adjustment for the horiziontal stabilizer (the small horizontal wing on the tail of an aircraft) and the pilot's communications equipment. After the grounding, David Carlson, director of ATD, ordered a thorough evaluation to determine what would be required to repair the plane and continue to operate it safely. The evaluation panel was made up of representatives from five NCAR divisions, UCAR, NOAA, and NSF, with technical guidance from Ed Trahan, a retired JSC employee.

The panel concluded that, with sufficient funds, the WB-57 could be operated safely for about a decade. One-time repairs will cost about $1.5 million, and the annual operating costs will total another $1.3 million. Besides hangar costs, these figures include such unique requirements as

  • pressure suits, needed for safe operation at altitudes above 50,000 feet;

  • spare parts, which should be stockpiled before they go out of circulation;

  • staff, from pilots to maintenance personnel.

    "As the last step in this review," Carlson reports, "we fixed everything that needed to be fixed" for the plane to fly again.

    JSC currently operates a WB-57 of its own and has eight pilots trained to fly it. By moving the plane to Texas, NCAR can make use of JSC's flight expertise and existing facilities at a much lower cost than that of keeping the plane in Colorado. However, Carlson points out, "The Johnson people don't have experience with the kinds of scientific payloads we're used to. Our instruments are more complex; for instance, they can be turned on and off during the flight if you only want to take measurements at certain altitudes, and the data flows [from the instruments] in a common stream." ATD will supply the knowledge needed to use this sophisticated instrumentation.

    The agreement between NCAR and JSC had not been completed by press time, so it's not yet certain, for example, how many flight hours will be available to university users. Carlson hopes to report on these issues at the October meeting of the UCAR members' representatives.

    For further information, contact Carlson (303-497-8830 or dcarlson@ucar.edu) or visit ATD's Web site.


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