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April 2005

Here's HIAPER!


The new HIAPER aircraft makes its inaugural landing at Jeffco. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

After a six-year gestation period, the HIAPER aircraft arrived March 11 at the Jefferson County Airport (Jeffco), dazzling more than 100 onlookers with a dramatic fly-by over the runway before touching down at 4:08 p.m. The sleek and shining plane, formally called the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research, is designed to serve at the frontier of atmospheric science for the next several decades.

“Is she beautiful or what?” asked a beaming Jim Huning of NSF, who traveled on the plane from Savannah, Georgia, where it had undergone finishing touches.

“Superb science is going to come from this aircraft over the next 20 to 30 years,” said NCAR director Tim Killeen at a brief ceremony at Jeffco after the plane landed.

First conceived in the 1980s and six years in the making, the $81.5 million aircraft is the largest community project in NCAR history. Its arrival marks the successful transformation of a Gulfstream V corporate jet into a research vessel suited for probing the lower stratosphere and flying to the most remote sections of the globe.

NSF owns HIAPER, but NCAR will maintain and operate the aircraft at the new RAF hangar at Jeffco. The aircraft, which is available for use by the entire atmospheric science community, will perform its first full-fledged research mission early next year (see sidebar).

“I think investigators are going to be thrilled with what they’ll be able to accomplish,” says Krista Laursen, HIAPER project director.

She adds that the flight from Savannah was “absolutely amazing,” beginning with an air show takeoff in which HIAPER demonstrated its power with an extremely steep ascent. During a portion of the flight, the plane soared to its maximum altitude of 51,000 feet (15,500 meters). From that perch,
Krista and the other passengers could make out the curvature of Earth and, looking up, they could see the very dark blue of the upper atmosphere. They watched other airplanes cruise far below them. “I’d never seen a contrail from above,” Krista says.

EOL’s Henry Boynton, the copilot on the flight, gave the aircraft top marks. “It handles really nicely,” he says. “It has a lot of power.”


EOL's Jim Nolan (left) greets HIAPER project director Krista Laursen. At the top of the steps is Jim Huning, HIAPER program official at NSF.

A unique package

Since the 1980s, atmospheric scientists at NCAR and elsewhere have discussed the need for a plane that could traverse large sections of the globe while reaching high into the atmosphere. With HIAPER, they have fulfilled their vision at last. “It’s taken a generation, but there she is. And it was worth every minute,” Jim said at the Jeffco ceremony.

Other planes can fly faster or reach higher into the atmosphere. What makes HIAPER unique, however, is its combination of high altitude, long-distance range, and instrument payload.

With its maximum altitude of 51,000 feet, HIAPER can skirt the bottom of the stratosphere. It can cruise for 7,000 miles (11,200 kilometers), reaching remote oceanic regions or tracking atmospheric chemicals as they move over oceans and across continents. And it can meet the demands of research projects by carrying up to 5,600 pounds (2,540 kilograms) of sensors and other research equipment.

“HIAPER’s range, duration, and high-altitude capability, combined with a significant scientific payload, make it the most advanced aircraft research platform in the United States,” Jim says.


The aircraft backs into the new RAF hangar at Jeffco.

HIAPER’s missions are likely to include:
• Viewing thunderstorms from above. By flying near the upper edges of a thunderstorm anvil, the aircraft can follow the movements of water droplets and ice particles, analyze electrical charges, and measure the flow of air in and out of the storm system—thereby gleaning insights into why thunderstorms behave in certain ways.
• Sampling the tropopause. HIAPER will be able to reach much of this critical boundary area between the troposphere and the stratosphere, collecting new data on chemical processes that affect climate around the globe.
• Following pollution plumes across continents and oceans. Researchers hope to use the plane to determine where pollutants originate, how they affect clouds and other atmospheric processes, and whether they are deposited back on Earth’s surface
• Studying hurricanes as they emerge. With HIAPER, scientists can fly far over the ocean to areas where ­tropical disturbances are just beginning, and they can soar well above Earth’s surface to study the interactions between high-
altitude jets of air and emerging storms.
• Characterizing cirrus clouds from the inside. Scientists will be able to create vertical profiles of clouds to study such fundamental processes as the movement of water droplets and the creation of rain.

Geoscientists also hope to tap HIAPER to map large areas of the planet with remote sensors. Satellite calibration is another area where the aircraft may shine, given its versatile range. HIAPER could help scientists estimate parameters that are difficult to measure with satellites, such as the temperature distribution inside the cloud and the amount of humidity below the cloud.

“HIAPER ushers in a new era of environmental research opportunity for NCAR and for the entire geosciences community,” Krista explains. “It will make it possible for scientists to study meteorological processes and environmental phenomena that are continental or nearly global in scale.”

As with other NSF/NCAR aircraft, missions will be chosen by the NSF Observing Facilities Advisory Panel (OFAP) based on proposals from the research community. HIAPER will eventually log on the order of 400 flight hours per year.

The aircraft marks a huge change from the NSF/NCAR Electra, a four-engine turboprop that was retired in 2001 after flying missions for three decades for the atmospheric science community. Scientists also have access to the NSF/NCAR C-130, but that plane cannot fly as far or high as HIAPER.

Next steps

HIAPER is the product of a complex public-private partnership: Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., Lockheed Martin, Garrett Aviation Consulting Group, and the Savannah Air Center have collaborated with NSF, NCAR, and others in the atmospheric science community to design the configuration for the aircraft. Subcontractors and NCAR staffers scrambled for several days prior to the delivery of the aircraft on March 11 to address last-minute complications, such as a malfunctioning antenna.

Now that the plane is here, the baton has been passed to dozens of NCAR engineers and technicians. They’re getting HIAPER’s data system, data display software, basic sensors, and other systems in place. A subcontractor, Atlas Telecom, will oversee installation and certification of the aircraft’s satellite communications systems.

In July, Gulfstream pilots will accompany their NCAR peers on test flights. A series of progressive science missions later in 2005 will test HIAPER’s mettle, relying mostly on a standard set of airborne instruments aboard flights out of Jeffco.

And then, at the end of this year, HIAPER will at last be ready for full research missions.

“It’s been an amazing team effort,” says Krista. Asked what it was like to have the plane finally delivered here, she confessed with a smile, "I didn't feel it was real until I was sitting in the aircraft and we were in the air on our way to Colorado."

by David Hosansky


Staffers and others admire HIAPER in the hangar.

Project office staff

The HIAPER Project Office consists of three full-time staffers: project director Krista Laursen, engineering manager Dick Friesen, and administrative assistant Carla Hassler. In addition, contract administrator Pat Munson and budget
analyst Geoff Cheeseman work for the office on a part-time basis, and webmaster Jen Oxelson provides services as needed.

Now that HIAPER has been delivered here, management of the aircraft will be turned over to EOL this summer

A research veteran turns to HIAPER


Joach with the instrumented experimental sailplane he flew during the 1955 Sierra Wave Project. (Photo by Harold Klieforth.)

Joach Kuettner (JOSS) has vivid memories from the 1930s of studying atmospheric waves that form on the lee side of mountains. A dissertation student at the time, he flew an open glider on the crest of a wave near a mountain range in eastern Germany—and found himself contending with oxygen deprivation and severe cold at an altitude of 7,000 meters (23,000 feet).

This time, he’ll be better equipped.

Joach is serving as a principal investigator on next year’s Terrain-Induced Rotor Experiment (T-Rex), which is the first full-fledged field project to involve the new HIAPER aircraft. The plane will carry scientists to an altitude of more than 14,000 meters (47,000 feet) to study the interactions of high-reaching mountain waves with underlying turbulent rotating air masses, or rotors.

“I’ve always wanted to explore the rotors,” Joach says. “It’s taken me this long.”

T-Rex is scheduled for March and April of next year. It will be based in the Owens Valley, east of a Sierra Nevada ridge that towers about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) about the valley floor. Vanda Grubisic of the Desert Research Institute is heading the research team, which includes EOL’s Greg Poulos and several other NCAR scientists in addition to Joach.

The experiment will use a network of ground-based instruments, as well as HIAPER and two lower-flying aircraft (a U.K. BAe146 jet and a University of Wyoming King Air) to study the formation of rotors under wave conditions. Although rotors pose a major hazard to aviation, scientists know little about their structure and evolution.

The team hopes to learn about additional scientific issues, such as exchanges of gases and chemicals between the troposphere and the overlying stratosphere under wave conditions. T-Rex also can spur improvements in modeling atmospheric processes and lead to better predictions of aviation hazards and the movement of airborne particles, or aerosols.

A lifelong passion

Joach, 95, has been one of the world’s foremost researchers of lee waves for more than six decades­­­—and he’s had some adventures along the way.

Joach Kuettner. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

For his dissertation, Joach organized an unfunded field project to learn about the newly discovered and mysterious updrafts found on the lee side of mountains. He deployed 25 specially equipped gliders, which were previously assembled for a competition. The work proved that the updrafts were due to a wave phenomenon. His doctorate, completed in 1939, contained the first detailed description of lee waves.

In order to determine the altitude range of the waves, Joach rode a huge wave cloud in a small open glider. The experiment ended because of oxygen deprivation and cold temperatures: Joach began seeing two suns, could not feel his feet, and noticed that his fingernails had turned blue (the temperature dropped to –32ºC, or –26ºF). He made his escape by ­flying alongside the wave cloud, eventually landing in a Polish village far from his departure point. His top altitude of 7,000 meters would have set a world record at the time, but it was never officially submitted.

Twenty years later, Joach again got more than he bargained for. He was field director of the Sierra Wave Project when a mountain wave east of the Sierra Nevada lofted his enclosed but unheated glider to 13,000 meters (43,000 feet). The temperature dropped to about –70ºC (–100ºF). Joach, equipped with oxygen and warm clothing, had trouble descending because the glider’s spoilers froze. That flight still stands as a German record for ­absolute altitude.

T-Rex, of course, will be different—and not just because HIAPER offers both heat and oxygen. The aircraft will give scientists a new perspective by carrying them above the rotors, and it will also enable them to clarify the mechanism of the coupled rotor/wave system.

“It’s very nice that you can do such research now,” Joach says.

• by David Hosansky


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