Warming Things Up

By George Hale, IceBridge Science Outreach Coordinator, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Each morning of an IceBridge campaign members of the team go through the process of putting on warm layers to handle the cold weather. And while cold affects people extreme cold poses a challenge to IceBridge’s equipment ranging from camera batteries to the P-3 itself.

Steam rising from buildings at Kangerlussuaq airport
Steam rising from hangar buildings at Kangerlussuaq’s airport on a -15 degree Fahrenheit morning on Apr. 8, 2014. Credit: NASA / George Hale

It’s morning in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and time to get ready for another day of data collection. After grabbing a quick breakfast the team starts preparing to head to the airport, putting on warm layers to combat the cold weather. In April the temperatures in Kangerlussuaq can vary from highs around 40 Fahrenheit down to below zero, so it’s important to dress accordingly.

The exceptionally cold mornings, those in the single digits and below, pose even more of a challenge to the team than what to wear. The cold not only affects people, it affects the cars and trucks the team use to get to the airfield and even the aircraft itself.

P-3 on a cold morning
The NASA P-3 sitting on the ramp at Kangerlussuaq airport on a cold morning while external heaters warm the aircraft cabin. Credit: NASA / George Hale

Anyone who has had to start the car on a cold winter morning would agree that cold weather is tough on cars. And although that is the case, extreme cold makes operating an aircraft challenging. Unlike Thule there is no hangar for the P-3 to sit in overnight, leaving it exposed to the cold. This calls for extra steps to prep the plane in the mornings.

Well before takeoff, the P-3 crew head out to the airfield to get things started. The first step is connecting hoses from portable heaters known as huffers to openings on special insulated covers on the engines. These insulated covers go on immediately after the P-3 returns from a flight, and while they don’t keep the engines warm overnight, they do trap heated air and allow the engine to warm faster. Other heaters supply warm air to the P-3’s cabin to start warming the computer equipment inside.

Movable heater warming up P-3 engines
A movable heater known as a huffer supplies warm air to two of the P-3’s engines on a cold morning in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Credit: NASA / George Hale

Once this is started the crew will turn on the P-3’s auxiliary power unit, or APU, which provides heat and electrical power for the plane. However when it gets really cold, say -15 Fahrenheit like it was on the morning of Apr. 8, the APU itself also needs to be heated to make sure the oil in the APU is warm enough to start.

With the APU running the P-3 has enough power and heat to allow researchers to begin warming up their instruments and computers. After a while the engines warm up enough for the flight crew to remove the insulating covers and then it’s time to fuel up and start the engines, which the pilots run for  a while to make sure everything is right before taking off.

Cold mornings make the already complex task of operating a flying laboratory even more challenging. This means that pre-flight preparations take a bit longer, but thanks to the hard work of aircraft crew, airport support personnel and instrument operators, the process runs as smoothly as possible.

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