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November 1998

HIAPER: A research plane for the 2000s takes shape

"It's going to be a crunch. It's going to stretch us. But we really want this opportunity."

Dave Carlson is explaining how the Atmospheric Technology Division will fit one more thing into its busy schedule. Several weeks ago, ATD submitted a proposal to carry out, on behalf of NSF, the biggest shopping expedition ever conducted by NCAR. The item sought: a brand-new, high-altitude, long-range jet aircraft to serve the research community. The price tag: upwards of $60 million.

Although it only exists on paper right now, the High-Altitude Integrated Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER) has taken off in the dreams of researchers. "I think the community is quite excited," says ATD director Dave. "Six or twelve months ago, people were hesitant, but now I think there's a higher degree of confidence that we might actually get this thing."

What's happening when?

11/98: NSF reviews proposal for NCAR to be systems integrator (SI)
3/99: NSF makes recommendation for choice of SI
7/99: SI releases request for proposal for airframe acquisition
10/99: Airframe contract is awarded
10/01: Aircraft is delivered
10/02: Installed instruments tested
7/03: Test flights begin
5/04: Community operations begin

What boosted community confidence was a decision by the National Science Board in August that authorized NSF to seek funding from its Major Research Equipment account for fiscal year 2000. Now ATD awaits approval of its plan to shepherd the process. If HIAPER receives a budget allocation and if all goes smoothly, bids will be solicited by the middle of next year. HIAPER would be under construction by 1 January 2000 and the first research flights would take off in the summer of 2004. (See box for other key dates.)

The tropopause beckons: HIAPER will make it possible for NCAR to conduct extensive projects in the transition zone between troposphere and stratosphere. (Illustration courtesy ATD.)

High enough, far enough

For more than a decade, ATD has been contemplating a new midsized jet for its Research Aviation Facility (RAF) at Jeffco. There's no research platform quite like HIAPER anywhere in the world right now. NASA's high-flying ER-2 jets carry only limited payloads and operate mainly above 60,000 feet (18 kilometers), with the sole pilot forced to wear a pressurized suit. The story is much the same with NASA's aging WB-57s, which are similar to the one NCAR operated in the mid-1990s before relinquishing it because of structural problems. Most other U.S. and international planes are turboprops that fly closer to earth and over shorter ranges, like the NSF/NCAR Electra and NOAA's P-3s.

"The U.S. fleet has several highly capable general-purpose aircraft and a few specialty, very high altitude platforms, but nothing that provides the range, altitude, and payload capabilities envisioned for HIAPER," notes ATD in its proposal.

Dave Carlson heads up the NCAR planning effort for HIAPER. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

Being able to fly high and far makes all kinds of new research possible. Cirrus clouds across the vast tropical oceans could be probed in more detail, work that could help calibrate new satellite data and help settle debate over the clouds' role in greenhouse-feedback processes. HIAPER would also be well suited to study mixing at the troposphere-stratosphere interface, where critical photochemistry takes place and circulation features key to storm development originate. Aerosols above the remote tropics could be traced during their ascent into the stratosphere.

To find out what the research community wants and needs, ATD surveyed 150 potential users this summer. The respondents were asked to identify both "desirable" and "essential" capabilities. The responses led to this list of basic specifications:

The picture painted by these numbers is that of a midsized corporate jet, the kind often used to whisk 10 or 20 people to meetings across the nation or the world. A midsized jet would be big enough to handle substantial payloads yet small enough to be accommodated at Jeffco's hangar and on its runway.

Unlike the surplus military planes often used for research, this aircraft would be up to date structurally and mechanically (although without the thick carpet and plush seats of its commercial counterparts). According to Dave, "I think the new versus used distinction isn't as important as the sheet-metal turboprop versus the modern corporate jet made of composite materials." However, he adds, the new breed of plane isn't going to lend itself to a la carte modifications as easily as the Electra and C-130 do: "Going back and retrofitting will be very difficult and very expensive."

To ensure the plane is tailored from the start to meet specific community needs, more input will come from two workshops ATD will hold over the next 15 months. These will focus on two kinds of instruments, respectively: a basic set that will stay with the aircraft from project to project, and additional sensors to be brought on board for specific missions. In each case, ATD wants to be able to tell the manufacturer how to adapt the airframe for maximum flexibility in research use--where to cut holes, install wiring, and the like.

Part of a vertical Web

Just as you can now make phone calls or watch video from a passenger plane, researchers will find HIAPER to be a product of the digital-media era. "A modern research aircraft should look and perform like any other node in the global communications system," says ATD in its proposal. "It should have a phone number, an Internet address, and a real-time Web page. It should provide easy and rapid voice, data, and imagery transmission over all networks." ATD plans to work with Unidata and other information-technology specialists to flesh out this vision and make it a reality.

HIAPER will also take advantage of ever-shrinking instruments and data processors. For instance, the aircraft should permit fully automatic deployment of ATD's newest dropsondes, with sonde-based processing chips likely to replace the present on-board data processors. (See Hurricane! for more on the current sondes.) Central tape drives could be replaced by the kinds of miniaturized units that now allow digital cameras to store as many as ten gigabytes in a hand-sized space. Likewise, standard optical detectors could be replaced by sensitive arrays of charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Many NCAR and university researchers are already exploring CCD technology, as the High Altitude Observatory did on its February eclipse expedition to the Caribbean.

As ATD waits on the official go-ahead from NSF, the division is looking ahead to staffing needs for the HIAPER procurement. ATD expects to hire a full-time project manager and assign about a dozen other staff to the project at various part-time levels. UCAR's Contracts office should be heavily involved in the procurement as well. A vendor's conference could bring manufacturers to the Foothills Lab and Jeffco sometime next year. The procurement would be handled according to the standard protocols for any large competitive bid, but cost might not be the only consideration, says Dave. "For us, it may be that the access to engineering information [to allow for later modifications at RAF] is the most important factor. We have to keep our options open."

ATD plans to work closely with the U.S. Air Force Commercial Aircraft Integrated Project Team, a group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base well versed in adapting commercial aircraft to military and other federal uses. Unlike the Electra and C-130, which are classified as "public aircraft" and thus face restrictions on the nature of their use, HIAPER would be certified as FAA-type and thus freed from some of these restrictions.

The chance to build an aircraft platform from scratch is a rare one in atmospheric research. Not since the King Air, delivered in 1982, has ATD overseen the acquisition of a brand-new commercial plane for NSF/NCAR operation. HIAPER's planners are hoping that the new aircraft fills a unique niche over the next several decades--a long enough span that some researcher not yet born might use it to gather data for her doctoral thesis sometime in the Twenties, roaring or not. •BH

Bye-bye, Electra?

It's trotted across much of the globe on behalf of atmospheric research. Now it's almost time for this workhorse to go to pasture. NCAR's venerable Electra, built in 1962 and operated as an NSF/NCAR community aircraft since 1974, is in its last years of service. The aging plane is likely to see its final research use before HIAPER's projected first flight in 2004. "We will not operate both of these planes [at the same time]," says Dave Carlson.

HIAPER was originally conceived as a replacement for the Electra. However, as it's currently envisioned by ATD, the midsized jet won't have room for the Electra Doppler radar (ELDORA). "You can't put that big a radar on a slender, graceful tail," Dave says. So ATD will begin hunting for an Electra replacement while it works on HIAPER.

"We've already done some design studies to see what other kinds of aircraft ELDORA might go on," says Dave. The most likely candidate is a P-3. It's too soon to tell how NSF and NCAR might finance an Electra replacement or exactly how the process will unfold. •

On the Web

The HIAPER Web site

It includes the NSF proposal and a background paper on HIAPER, along with the community survey and other supporting materials.

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall