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Winter 1998

New aircraft is cleared for takeoff

HIAPER would significantly increase the capabilities of NSF's research fleet.

NSF's National Science Board has approved a request to include the High-Altitude Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research in NSF's fiscal year 2000 budget. If all goes as planned, HIAPER will become available for research operations in 2004.

Although the research community has been expressing its need for a high-altitude research aircraft for a good 15 years, "We've never gotten this far on this acquisition before," said David Carlson, director of NCAR's Atmospheric Technology Division. In October, ATD submitted to NSF a proposal to acquire and manage HIAPER, which was reviewed the following month by an NSF panel. The panel's recommendations will receive further review within NSF and by the National Science Board. NCAR hopes to issue a contract for the aircraft as early as January 1999.

ATD surveyed the community last summer to establish needs and preferences for HIAPER-based research. Starting early in 1999, the division will hold a series of instrumentation workshops to establish the primary scientific missions for the plane and the appropriate instrumentation for these missions. ATD will keep the community informed through a Web-based information system, which will allow readers to survey plans, monitor schedules, and send comments. The address is http://www.atd.ucar.edu/dir_off/hiaper.

Science and technology opportunities

With the ability to fly as high as 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) and with a range of 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles)--in other words, into the stratosphere and a quarter of the way around the earth--HIAPER will allow scientists to study the upper troposphere, the tropopause region, and the lower stratosphere over much of the planet. Currently, the NASA DC-8 and NOAA's new Gulfstream IV can carry investigators and payloads to the lower parts of these regions, but very few existing or planned research aircraft have the combination of range, payload, and altitude envisioned for HIAPER. A wide range of atmospheric scientists, from chemists to cloud physicists to climate modelers, need HIAPER's capabilities to advance their understanding of the climate system.

For example, says James Dye (head of the Physical Meteorology Group in NCAR's Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division), "One of the areas of great importance to climate studies is the radiative balance in the upper troposphere and the impact of cirrus and anvil [cloud] debris on this radiative balance. We have not had the ability to get into the upper troposphere--even at midlatitudes--to examine this very well. HIAPER will give the community the opportunity to examine particle types, sizes, and concentrations while at the same time making radiation measurements in, above, and below the clouds."

Michael Coffey, deputy director of NCAR's Atmospheric Chemistry Division, reports that HIAPER could answer a question that's been holding up progress in his field. "We've been studying ozone in the stratosphere and in the troposphere, and we've got the first-order explanation down, but our understanding is limited by [having few observations of] the transfer between the two regions. We don't know whether ozone is being created in the troposphere or transferred down from the stratosphere." Coffey notes that transfer between the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere is also important for other greenhouse gases.

Carlson points out, "This airplane flies almost twice as high and twice as fast as the [NSF/NCAR] C-130." Existing instrumentation may not work under these new conditions. He intends to work with the research community to develop a new set of "primary" instruments, which will be on the plane for every flight. These instruments will be smaller and lighter than the C-130 instruments, partly because HIAPER's payload is likely to be smaller. But also, Carlson says, "This is exactly where technology is going." He points to the explosion in miniature communication devices, such as cell phones and GPS receivers. "We want to tap into this new digital technology. We see this as a way to bring a burst of new technology into aviation instrumentation. If the universities and NCAR lead the way, [the innovations] will spread through the community fast."

When scientists develop and use specialized instruments to mount on the aircraft for specific types of research missions, "We want to set a new standard so they're ready to plug and play," says Carlson. "This aircraft isn't as easy to poke holes in as the C-130."

There is a related problem: "You can't put the ELDORA radar on the tail of one of these slender, graceful, aircraft," Carlson says. The 30-year-old Electra aircraft, which currently houses the Electra Doppler radar (ELDORA), will be out of service by 2004, whether NSF and NCAR get HIAPER or not. So the radar will need a new home. ATD will be working on "the ELDORA problem" concurrently with planning for HIAPER.

The aircraft

Some have asked why NSF and NCAR chose to acquire a new aircraft rather than refurbishing the WB-57F, a high-altitude plane that NCAR returned to NASA last year. Carlson explains that funding for HIAPER comes from NSF's Major Research Equipment account, which could not be used for the B-57. More important, he says, is that "By anyone's estimation, the B-57 was near the end of its life. HIAPER is a long-term investment."

HIAPER will be a sleek, modern jet. The plane will be cheaper to operate than many older aircraft, and parts will be readily available. What's more, it can be serviced at almost any airport. Carlson sums up, "With HIAPER, you're into commercial aviation."

The candidate airframes for HIAPER are business aircraft. These planes have many noncommercial users; for example, the U.S. Air Force flies business aircraft on noncombat missions. At this point, midsized business aircraft (carrying up to 25 passengers) appear to be the most suitable vehicles for HIAPER. Examples of these are the Gulfstream G-IV, G-IV SP, and G-V; the Bombardier Challenger and Global Express; and the Dassault Falcon 900EX. Many questions remain to be answered, however. ATD will be gathering information about these and other candidate models throughout next spring.

In the same period, the community workshops will decide what structural modifications the chosen aircraft will require to house the necessary instrumentation. Carlson notes that since the base costs for these aircraft are fairly similar, the selection may rest on such factors as a manufacturer's experience with engineering and modifications of the type HIAPER will require.

The airframe itself is budgeted at $35 million, with modifications, instrumentation, and infrastructure adding another $31 million to the package. This makes the HIAPER procurement one of NCAR's biggest ever. And Carlson intends to staff the effort largely by using an experienced U.S. Air Force procurement team and by redirecting existing NCAR and UCAR staff. ATD will hire only a new project manager and a few other support staff devoted to the procurement. "It's going to stress us," he says, "but it's a good kind of stress. We've been wanting this opportunity for years."


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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 14:56:02 MDT 2000