Summer School: NASA Airborne Science 101

Inside the cramped quarters of the NASA Sherpa with the racks of scientific instruments. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill photography

by Madison Lichak / SKIES OVER CALIFORNIA /

Thirty-two undergraduates from across the country had the experience of a lifetime flying on the NASA C-23 Sherpa and UC-12B King Air laboratories as part of the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) summer internship.  One student, Madison Lichak, a biology major from Barnard College in New York, shares her flight experiences.

It is stifling hot inside the aircraft, and I fidget nervously in my seat. A towering metal rack of scientific instruments stands before me, blocking my view toward the front of the plane, close enough that my knees are almost pressed against it. Motion sickness bags, tucked inside their cheerful blue paper wrappers, lie littered across an unused shelf. I try to breathe normally. I have taken many flights in my life, but the flight today is going to be unlike anything I have ever experienced.

The plane I am on, NASA’s C-23 Sherpa, is not your normal commercial aircraft. An old army cargo plane outfitted to carry scientific instruments, the Sherpa reminds me of a bumblebee; with its tiny wings, you have to marvel at the fact that it can even stay up in the air. Loveably ugly and swamp green, the Sherpa is our laboratory for the next two and a half hours. As part of the Student Airborne Research Program (SARP), I, along with 31 other students from across the country, have the unique opportunity to work with NASA scientists to examine Earth from the air.

The 2017 NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) participants, faculty, mentors and pilots pose in front of the NASA C-23 Sherpa at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmale, California. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography

The previous day, while other students flew in the Sherpa over Los Angeles, I donned a flight suit and flew aboard NASA Langley’s UC-12B with the Geostationary Trace Gas and Aerosol Sensor Optimization (GeoTASO) instrument. It was a thoroughly pleasant, if somewhat cramped, flight at 20,000 feet.  Throughout the flight we monitored the instrument as it made measurements of the atmospheric gases below us.

Madison Lichak, an undergraduate student at Barnard College in New York,  poses by the NASA Langley UC-12B. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography

However, on the Sherpa we will be taking physical samples of the air, so we need to fly right through the air we want to collect. This means we will be flying at an average height of 1,000 feet above the ground. As the last flight of the day, the hot air will have had plenty of time to become uneven, making for a very turbulent ride. The previous day’s final flight had been so bumpy that several students became sick, and I stare at the blue motion sickness bags in front of me with a mixture of trepidation and relief.

Luckily, there isn’t much time for me to be nervous, as the Sherpa is only on the ground for a few minutes between flights. It’s almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside on the runway at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, and the longer the non-airconditioned plane sits on the ground, the hotter it gets inside and the greater the chance that the instruments will overheat. The turnover between flights has to be quick, so I scurry toward my seat where I begin to sweat nervously as other students and scientists remove used air collection canisters and tubes, affectionately known as “snakes” (due to the way the metal tubing snakes through them), and load new ones onto the plane.

Students Mario Autore and Sean Leister load air canisters onto the NASA Sherpa aircraft in between flights. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill photography

Once the transition is complete, the pilots start the engines, and because the Sherpa isn’t insulated, the noise is deafening. I quickly put my noise-cancelling headset on, just in time to hear the pilots ask if we’re ready for takeoff. I only have time for one more forlorn look at the blue motion sickness bags before we’re up in the air and I begin to relax. The air isn’t as hot and stagnant up here, and the turbulence isn’t that bad. The whole air sampling group gets up to begin taking air samples, and next to me the air quality monitoring research group turns on their instrument to begin collecting data.

Student Natasha Dacic takes an air sample in-flight aboard the NASA Sherpa. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography

I sit back and watch as we fly over the massive redwoods of Sequoia National Park, a wildfire that billows smoke thousands of feet into the air, and oil fields so expansive they seem never-ending. As we spin in endless loops around the landscape, I marvel at all of the ways that scientific research seems to defy boundaries.

Before I know it we are touching down at Armstrong. As the Sherpa makes its way toward the hangar, I revel in the fact that we just did science on an airplane, and I am so grateful to the scientists, pilots and staff that made this wonderful opportunity possible. We gather up our things and shut down the instruments, opening the Sherpa’s rear door to the jubilant cries of our fellow scientists and students waiting on the ground, and see that they are holding up their hands above their heads to create a human tunnel. Running underneath their arms, I smile and yell, too, laughing and sharing in their joy.

Lichak emerges from a human tunnel formed by SARP participants at the NASA Sherpa after the final research flight on June 27, 2017. Credit: Megan Schill, Megan Schill Photography