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Spring 2002

Under construction: the new NSF/NCAR high-altitude jet

by Bob Henson

Right now it’s little more than a shell and an engine. But in June, a newly assembled General Dynamics Gulfstream V jet will fly to Greenville, South Carolina, for a unique transformation. Technicans at a Lockheed Martin plant in Greenville will spend the next two years turning this aircraft (which is literally green, thanks to a standard coat of primer) into one of the best-equipped, highest-flying planes in atmospheric and related research.

Photo courtesy Gulfstream

NCAR associate scientist Krista Laursen became HIAPER project director in February. She has managed field projects for almost ten years in NCAR's Research Aviation Facility. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The NSF/NCAR High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research is now moving full speed ahead after a gradual takeoff. It took several years to outline the requirements for HIAPER, choose a contractor, and line up the NSF funding. Negotiations with the successful bidder, Gulfstream, concluded last fall. In November, the National Science Board approved the deal, and Congress appropriated $35 million for fiscal 2002 (following on $21 million in the previous two years) to purchase the jet through NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account. When all is said and done, HIAPER and related new instrumention will have cost roughly $80 million. It’s the biggest NSF procurement ever for NCAR, equal to more than half of NCAR’s typical yearly budget.

NCAR director Tim Killeen is enthusiastic. “We can now investigate essential questions concerning the Earth’s changing climate that have been beyond our grasp. These involve clouds, greenhouse gas concentrations, aerosol plumes, temperature, and other factors. It’s exciting to be able to make such a highly efficient aircraft available to researchers around the country.”

With HIAPER, scientists will be able to spend hours in and near the tropopause, the shallow boundary between the ever-mixing troposphere and the more stable stratosphere. Even with a full scientific payload, the Gulfstream V can climb to 41,000 feet in around 22 minutes, and its peak certified altitude is a dizzying 51,000 feet. (The comparable height for a Gulfstream IV, such as NOAA’s, is 45,000 feet.) The G-V’s range is also exceptional, on the order of 7,000 miles (11,300 kilometers). David Carlson, the head of NCAR’s Atmospheric Technology Division (ATD), points out that the Gulfstream V could hug the western, southern, and eastern borders of the continental United States—from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine—without a single stop. Several other research jets (such as NASA’s ER-2 and Proteus) can fly higher, but “this plane provides a combination of range and altitude better than any other platform in atmospheric research,” Carlson says.

In order to produce this combination, some tradeoffs were essential. The community members who helped plan HIAPER chose altitude, endurance, and range as the top priorities (in that order), and payload and floor space as lower priorities. Thus, the top payload will be somewhere around 6,000 pounds (2,700 kilograms), about half of what can be accommodated on the NSF/NCAR C-130. “The instruments are going to have to be little and light,” notes Harriet Barker. Since retiring as a UCAR vice president, Barker has been working with Carlson and community members on HIAPER planning over the past two years.

A survey of potential users in 1998 and a workshop in 1999 provided a nucleus of input from the university community. The process has been advanced by the HIAPER Advisory Committee (see box), which has convened in person and through conference calls several times over the past year and a half. A second community workshop, this one focused on instrumentation, is expected later this year.

To help keep the massive HIAPER effort distinct from the already-intense workload in ATD (and vice versa), a new project office is being established through the NCAR directorate. Krista Laursen (see photo) has been hired as HIAPER project director. She will serve as liaison between NCAR management, ATD, and NSF.

Inside the Gulfstream

The Gulfstream V is the latest in a line of aircraft produced since the 1950s by Gulfstream Aerospace, a subsidiary of General Dynamics based in Savannah, Georgia. More than 1,000 Gulfstreams are now in service. About 10% of these are owned by governments in more than 30 nations, where they’re used mostly for transporting heads of state and other VIPs. The NSF/NCAR jet will sport an unusually sparse cabin compared to the normally posh décor of the G-V (no wine-glass holders, for example).

One advantage of the Gulfstream’s widespread use in business and government is that the plane can be serviced and supported at many commercial aviation sites worldwide. Lockheed Martin is installing under-the-wing hard points to carry instrument pods, each capable of holding about 200 pounds (90 kg) of gear. One of these pods will carry ATD’s new automated dropsonde launch system. Three 20-inch-wide (51-centimeter) view ports, two looking down and one looking up, will support a wide range of remote sensors and chemistry inlets. Plans also call for a wide array of interior and exterior attachment points and apertures to provide flexibility for future missions. Gulfstream and scientists from NCAR and several universities will conduct fluid dynamics studies to characterize the airflow around the aircraft, especially at proposed instrument or inlet locations. The first announcement of opportunity for instrumentation development will be issued by NSF within the next year, pending federal budget allocations.

With space at such a premium, NSF program official Jim Huning points out that “instrument developers will be encouraged to partner among themselves—NCAR, the universities, national laboratories, private companies—and to incorporate emerging technology to reduce mass, power, and size.” Ron Smith, a member of the HIAPER Advisory Committee, hopes to use the new aircraft to study gravity waves and water isotopes in and near the tropopause. Over the past ten years, since the retirement of the NCAR-based Sabreliner, no NSF aircraft has been available that suited Smith’s goals. In the Mesoscale Alpine Project, Smith’s team used the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Falcon. “This led to good collaboration with German scientists, but altitude and payload factors limited the scope of the research. The HIAPER capabilities will open many new opportunities for me and others interested in the ‘boundary layer’ between the troposphere and stratosphere.”

The Gulfstream V is slated to leave Greenville for Boulder in the fall of 2004, and its first mission is expected in mid-2005. If present interest is any indication, the jet will scarcely sit idle. “It fills a niche that no other aircraft can fill,” says Huning. He adds that the chance to build this research platform from a brand-new aircraft is especially exciting. Such opportunities are rare: for example, NASA’s DC-8 was once part of the Alitalia commercial fleet. Because other agencies are already expressing an interest in using the G-V, says Huning, “We may be looking at a new paradigm [for allocation] down the line. This will be a national resource to serve the entire environmental sciences community.”

On the Web:

HIAPER Advisory Committee

David Jorgensen, NOAA (chair)
Michael Coffey, NCAR
Estelle Condon, NASA/ARC
Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University
Chester Gardner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Donald Lenschow, NCAR
Roddy Rogers, NSF
Eric Saltzman, University of California, Irvine
Ronald Smith, Yale University

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Mon Mar 11 16:42:17 MST 2002