NASA817 Heavy

This post was provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

First off, sorry for not writing. I will make no excuses. Secondly, I got to fly in the DC-8! On a convection flight! The goal of the flight was to investigate marine convection in various stages: growth, mature, and dissipative. The mature is the best!

Down at the far end of the base is the entrance to the hanger that houses all the science equipment. It was a bright crisp morning (crisp… HA! it was probably 80 F at 5 AM!), and I’m grateful to Nick for waking up slightly earlier than usual so he could drop me off. There was a safety briefing before we got on the plane for us newbies. It’s basically like the one you see on a commercial flight. However, there is a little addition in case of a gas leak on the plane. In case of this, there is a little hood that pops on over your head and constricts around your neck to protect you. After the video, there was the flight brief that basically just went over the science objective. Interesting note that they like to put in there: the plane had 126,000+ pounds of fuel!

Post pre-flight brief I got to wander around for a few. This was fantastic! I got to walk up to the DC-8 and ER-2. RIGHT UP TO THEM! I could’ve touched the turbines if I wanted! There was a beautiful sunrise, and everything. Thank you nature for being you. 

(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)
(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

I was advised by Hal Maring to ride in the “jump seat”. Well… let me tell you… WOW. This seat is located in the cockpit.

(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)
(Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

It sits a little higher than the captain’s seat, and you can see everything! I got to see takeoff and landing! One of the greatest experiences of my life. Seeing the three pilots (pilots? Two pilots and an flight engineer who controlled the power board) work together on takeoff; the giant checklists they had to go through; and the coordination with ATC was just impressive. I got to listen in on the headset to the pilots talk to each other and ATC. A funny joke of the morning was when a NASA jet took off with its afterburners, someone on the radio said that they “better see the DC-8 do that”. I wish! Whenever you think your plane is taking too long to depart the gate, I’d like you to think and understand the complexity of a plane. The amount of safety checks is phenomenal. The flight engineer gave me my brief. He pointed out my oxygen mask, and the pilot quickly turned around to show which one was his, and to not take it. The oxygen masks were the type you see the fighter pilots wearing – not the plastic bag that “may not inflate”. In case we were to ditch, I had to wait for someone from mission control to get me, or if it was quite bad, the pilots were to yell at me to get out, and they “wouldn’t be nice about it”. Understandable.

I tried as best I could to catch on to the lingo amongst the pilots and ATC, and boy was it interesting! NASA817 Heavy. That was the phrase I listened for. On the ATC channel multiple planes are talking so it can get confusing pretty quickly, but all I listened for was NASA817 Heavy. The “heavy” stands for (and I just Googled this, so naturally it’s true) when a plane is heavier than 300,000 pounds. How about that! On our ascent to altitude, a plane was in the region. “NASA817 Heavy, you’ve got traffic on your 11 o’clock”. Okay so, you know scenes in shows when planes crash in mid-air? I totally see that as plausible. After ATC said this, all three crew members stopped what they were doing and stared out the window. I did this, as well. I mean, I was basically flying the plane – these guys were depending on me. We kept looking… and looking… and looking until this plane comes zooming by. It looked like it was a mile away. Travelling at 300 mph, it doesn’t take long to get next to each other. As soon as the plane was in sight, it was out of sight. Thank an air traffic controller.

The dance that the flight crew went through was impressive. The pilot was basically not to be bothered, ever, I gathered. He flew. If the co-pilot was doing something (turning a knob, or piloty things), and the pilot needed to do something that was in the way, the co-pilot immediately removed his hands and stopped what he was doing so the pilot could finish his task. This happened when the pilot just wanted to increase the thrust. Just something as simple as that, and all hands were out of the way. Amazing stuff.

The flight itself was great, too. We were following storms, what else is better?! For ease of communication, the storms were named. One of the commanders on mission control on the plane was Hawaiian. He named one of the main storms we studied Leilani (heavenly lei; beautiful, eh?).

Leilani (Image credit to Tristan Hall)
Leilani (Image credit to Tristan Hall)

This beauty was fun. We got into the updraft of the storm which maxed out around 10 m/s (22 mph; that’s pretty good) followed by a 7 m/s (16 mph) downdraft. I got to feel weightless for a good second or two. WOO! Let’s just say, I’ll never be troubled by turbulence on a commercial flight, anymore. Mid-flight we got to spiral down to the boundary layer (near surface layer). As we spiraled down… and down… and down… the oil rigs kept on getting bigger… and bigger… and bigger. Then we straightened out and flew at 350 ft. Yea… 350 FEET! From the OCEAN SURFACE! AT 300 mph! The oil rigs were zooming by.

Flying near the surface (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)
Flying near the surface (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

We finished a successful mission, and returned to Ellington. Landing was just as amazing as takeoff in the jump seat. The pilots kept asking me for hints on landing, and I was all like “guys… it’s your turn, you’ve got this”. The best I can compare that too is a simulator on your computer or something. Once the runway is in view it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, until the bump of landing. The end to a wonderful day.

Overall, this was just an amazing experience. It was truly breathtaking and inspiring. The NASA Airborne Science program is unique. I hope to be a part of it for the years to come. There is so much imagination, and pure brilliance that goes into the science equipment onboard the plane. In case you are wondering, the plane is outfitted such that basically every-other window is removed and replaced with an instrument. So there are around 30 instruments sticking their little noses outside the plane. The engineers need to be very creative to design their apparatus so that it conforms to the plane. Speaking of the plane, there were first class seats, and Bose noise-cancelling headphones! Oh yea, top notch. These are essential as the plane is LOUD without the headset, and everybody needs to talk on the mission channel. The first class seats are must as who the heck wants to sit in a tiny seat for 8 hours, and not be able to move?!

I will forever remember this experience.

Welcome to SEAC4RS

This post and its photos were provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

I first arrived in Houston for SEAC4RS on Sunday, 18 August. My colleague Nick picked me up from the airport after a less-than-perfect landing. This was my second time arriving at Houston-Hobby, and 7th flight in two months; so naturally, I’m a pro. I took the stairs down to baggage and lugged my under-50 lbs baggage to go meet Nick at the pick-up area.

Nick drove me to the hotel which is basically an apartment; including a kitchen with all the necessary amenities, and a living room. He had to go back to his shift at Ellington; so I was left to let my imagination run wild on what to expect tomorrow morning. Later my professor took me out for dinner, to my surprise, for all the work I’ve done back in Tallahassee. Thanks!

On Monday we took off bright and early for Ellington. When I arrived, I was in awe that I’m at a NASA-affiliated facility. The Meatball is everywhere; there are planes, barbed-wire fences, and guards. I have to go into an office to get my visitor badge – they forgot to sign me up for the “restricted sector” badge… again. 🙂  Oh well, I’ll make do. Off to the hanger where our command center is.

Being thrown into a shark tank doesn’t even come close to describe how I felt on day 1. Holy Toledo! 0-60 in 1.5 seconds. Everybody had already been in the swing of things for a couple weeks, by now, so I had to catch up fast! I had to look at the weather! Best Job Ever! Knowing how to forecast is more than just looking ahead – it’s looking behind, as well (that’s philosophical for ya there). I had been preoccupied in Tallahassee for the past couple weeks setting up a lab for ozonesonde measurements, so I had slacked a little on the whole “looking behind” aspect. In other words, I had no idea what the weather was like.

Max and I filling a balloon for an ozonesonde launch. (Photo credit to Antonio Riggi)
Max and I filling a balloon for an ozonesonde launch. (Photo credit to Antonio Riggi)

I spent all day trying to absorb everything. Every forecast model and how it compares to every other model. Every forecast discussion. Every historical satellite image I could find. Every variable of every model we have plotted on our FSU website and every other website out there (seriously, there are a plethora). Everybody here was on the same level as each other and knew what to expect of one another. I was overwhelmed. I felt underprepared, and I felt like I would never catch up.

This was a nowcasting shift, which is similar to forecasting, but only a couple hours in the future. The flight plan was pretty set, and conditions weren’t too nasty so it was an easy shift. I spent most of my time looking back, getting to know the weather. Dinner was soup and salad at the hotel lobby. Free is good.

Day 2 was a little better. On non-flight days we give a met briefing to lead off the science meeting. I got to see what to expect, and more importantly, what’s expected of me in the days to come. We report on current and future conditions, and point out specific regions of interest if they align with the science objectives of the campaign. Interests include convective outflow, smoke transport, and the North American Monsoon (NAM). After this, my time was spent understanding the atmosphere and its dynamic beauty. There is a trough in the east that just won’t go away, a cut-off low off the coast of California — with nothing steering it, a front moving down through the Great Lakes region, and nothing exciting over the Atlantic, to name a few. Dinner was “BBQ” provided by the hotel. It was chopped beef (not pork; or brisket!); however, it was sweet with a little too much liquid smoke. What’s with these Western folk? However, I had 2 buns, so I’m not really complaining. I do an excellent job of eating!

Day 3 – Wednesday – another nowcasting shift. I felt way more comfortable today. I was getting into the swing of things, and feeling more comfortable speaking up. The flight for today wanted to sample convection before it was intense. So, we had to find where convection was going to be and direct the planes to it. We settled on northern Alabama which had plenty of little popcorn cumulus. A view of the flight path could make you sick, it’s so swirly. Imagine a child drawing scribbles on a piece of paper. The pilots get in to the clouds and just go wild. The return path for one of the planes looked like it would intersect too strong convection; so it got really exciting for about an hour — and tense. People were depending on our radar skills. Once the planes made it past the bad convection, Nick and I displayed our GR2Analyst skills recreationally. Those non-met folks were amazed — cross sections; 3D plots; they kept coming back with new people in-tow asking us to show the 3D images. Dinner was stuffed peppers from the hotel! Not too shabby, again.

So far, I’ve seen an F-4, the 747 Space Shuttle Carrier, several NASA jets (which, for some reason nobody will let me drive. C’mon there are like 20 of them, let me take one out!), the DC-8 taxi, and the ER-2 take off and land, which has a chase car… Yup, a car that chases it as it lands, how do I get in that?!  It has stabilizers on the back because it goes so fast!). I am learning fast, having a wonderful time meeting all these people, and having an EVEN MORE wonderful time forecasting and nowcasting. This is truly an experience of a lifetime. Thanks professor!

ER-2 Chase car. Can I ride in this? (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)
ER-2 Chase car. Can I ride in this? (Photo credit to Tristan Hall)

I hope you enjoyed this post, and follow along for the next month and a half!

New Blogger Bio – Tristan Hall for SEAC4RS

This post and its photo is provided by Tristan Hall, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Born and raised in northwest Ohio in a little town called Genoa, my first recollection of wanting to be a meteorologist was when my elementary school guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I chose the natural response that a child does – leaning toward the heroic profession of doctor – but my second and more enthusiastic response was “tornado chaser”. What second grader chooses storm chasing as their profession? Well, my guidance counselor thought the same evidently, because she laughed at me. It’s funny how some experiences really stick with you.

After receiving degrees in physics and geography from Appalachian State University (go Mountaineers!) with concentrations in atmospheric processes, I am now a Master’s student in meteorology at The Florida State University, conducting research under Dr. Henry Fuelberg. My focus is on pollution transport via mesoscale influences and deep convection in the Strait of Malacca. I’ve been storm chasing once and caught a tornado near Fairview, OK. I love everything weather, and am a major sucker for nature shows. Sitting and staring at the sky is one of my favorite things to do (and then looking at the most recent satellite and radar scans to confirm what I’ve seen). How does a meteorologist know if it’s raining outside their house? They look at the radar. I live with my girlfriend (the love of my life), Catherine, who is a brilliant PhD student in musicology, and our cat Felix T.C. Mendelssohn Williams-Hall, who is a professional nap-taker. After my Master’s, I plan to move on to the big leagues of academia and get my PhD, as well. After we’re both complete, we’ll have a household of doctors: BEWARE!

I am beyond excited to be part of the meteorology forecasting team here at SEAC4RS. We are responsible for forecasting the meteorology for the science flights and reporting our information in daily briefings, and nowcasting during flights to help direct planes in and out of convection. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience, and I am very grateful to my professor for allowing me to be a part of this adventure!

Above the Clouds

This post was provided by Nick Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Today’s blog comes from above the clouds, high in the atmosphere in which we live…the one SEAC4RS hopes to better understand.  I’m flying home for a week.  Speaking of flying, these first 20 days also have flown by, and I can’t wait to get back to Houston for 30 more.  As a graduate student who spends most of his time reading peer-reviewed articles and writing computer code, SEAC4RS has provided me a humbling and rewarding experience thus far.  I gave my first weather briefing, led a morning pre-flight brief, and contributed as much as possible whenever I could.  SEAC4RS also has taught me the importance of urgency.  Us scientists (and humans for that matter) always like to be prepared.  We like to plan ahead.  Unfortunately, with weather forecasting, there is no planning ahead (I know that sounds contradictory!).  Things are always changing; so to provide the best forecast, you have to wait for the latest data.  This means that you are forced to procrastinate.  Then, like the people waiting for their boarding zone to be called, there is a huge “rush to the gate.”  But, I’ve found that this isn’t always a bad thing.  Sometimes urgency brings out the best in everyone.  You become much more efficient, you work as a unit, and you learn what works and what doesn’t.  Think of a wild animal out on a hunt: they wait and wait until an opportunity presents itself…they then exhaust an extreme amount of energy in a very short period…followed by relaxation and the reward of having their next meal.  Our process is not all that different…we “pounce” on the latest data, exhaust a lot of energy into our briefing, and then get to relax and let the feeling of “a job well done” soak in…very primal of us! In short, I have learned that procrastination is not always a bad thing, and may in fact be beneficial in some cases…(but not for school work, of course!).

As for the status of SEAC4RS, things are going great!  We flew into some smoke a few days ago, and then spent the all of Friday in the southeast U.S. examining chemistry, radiation, and convective clouds.  Next on the agenda is what we call a suitcase flight: the DC-8 will travel into the northwest U.S., stay the night, and fly back the next day.  This allows a lot more time to study the region.  While in the northwest, we will be studying smoke from wildfires occurring in both California and Idaho.  These fires have been a hot topic in the news lately, and SEAC4RS aims to understand their impacts on the large scale.

Lastly, as I am flying, the plane just encountered some “rough air” at 36,000 ft.  Next time you are flying, and experience turbulence, and get that strange feeling in your stomach, think of SEAC4RS.  These scientists are chasing rough air, flying around storms, putting their life in danger, for the hopes of better understanding the processes that affect our world.  Not your typical scientists, that’s for sure.

The view I had while writing this blog.  Not a bad way to “work.” (Photo credit to Nick Heath)
The view I had while writing this blog. Not a bad way to “work.” (Photo credit to Nick Heath)

Unforecasted Fun!

This post was provided by Nick Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

The science flight on Friday, August 16th was a big success.  What’s more, a member of the met team was selected to fly at the last minute.  Lesson learned: always be prepared!  Sean Freeman, an undergraduate meteorology and computer science major at Florida State University, put his name on the list as a potential “flyer.”  Unfortunately, he found out bad news on Thursday: the manifest was full…he would not be flying on the DC-8.  Then, early Friday morning, he received a call that a spot opened up…he now was on the list!  I rushed him to Ellington, he received his safety brief, and he was off to experience airborne science first hand.

The goal of Friday’s science flight was to examine the North American Monsoon.  In general, a monsoon is a seasonal reversal of the wind pattern.  During the summer, this comes about because land (e.g., the North American continent) heats up a lot more than the surrounding waters, thus creating a large-scale temperature gradient.  Elevated terrain, such as the mountainous regions of Mexico and the western U.S., enhance this process.  The net result is a lot of thunderstorms over the continents, which transport pollution into the upper levels of the troposphere.  Once there, the pollution has the potential to impact climate on a global scale.  So, understanding this phenomenon is very important to understanding our climate.

The planes took off at ~10 AM CDT.  They headed west along the U.S./Mexico border, sampling aged outflow from thunderstorms associated with the monsoon.  They then turned northeast, and headed toward Colorado.  On their way to Colorado, they passed over the large Four Corners power plant, and were able to sample its “pollution plume.”  Once over Colorado, they encountered a smoke plume from wildfires.  The flight scientists took advantage of this situation and sampled the smoke plume.  The DC-8 flew legs through the smoke, while the ER-2 got remote sensing data from above.

Storms were beginning to pop up around Houston; so the ER-2 headed home to beat them.  The DC-8 headed home, but did some more science on its way back.  Over Texas, it descended close to the surface to sample air from a large oil field.  As the DC-8 got closer to Ellington, a large cluster of thunderstorms decided to pop up and race them home!  Met team member Sean Freeman was lucky enough to ride in the cockpit for landing, so he saw these storms up-close and personal.  A few commercial airlines even had to make emergency landings at Ellington to avoid these storms.  The DC-8 landed just before the rain and lightning reached Ellington…success (well kinda, the storm was not forecast by the met team, so no success for us!).

Below are some great images Sean provided from his trip on the DC-8.  Overall, this flight was a great success and accomplished many of the science objectives of SEAC4RS!

Flight tracks for the DC-8 (blue) and ER-2 (red) for 16 August 2013. (Photo credit to Brian Toon)
Flight tracks for the DC-8 (blue) and ER-2 (red) for 16 August 2013. (Image credit: Brian Toon)
Not your typical airplane!  The DC-8 truly is a flying laboratory.  Here, the scientists are all busy operating their instruments during the flight on 16 August.  (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)
Not your typical airplane! The DC-8 truly is a flying laboratory. Here, the scientists are all busy operating their instruments during the flight on 16 August. (Image credit: Sean Freeman)
The power plant that was sampled as the planes headed toward Colorado, as seen from the DC-8. (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)
The power plant that was sampled as the planes headed toward Colorado, as seen from the DC-8. (Image credit: Sean Freeman)
Cloud tops of the large thunderstorms that the DC-8 was “racing” home.  This unpredicted cluster of storms caused a lot of problems for air traffic in the Houston area. (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)
Cloud tops of the large thunderstorms that the DC-8 was “racing” home. This unpredicted cluster of storms caused a lot of problems for air traffic in the Houston area. (Image credit: Sean Freeman)
A view you probably won’t see too often…in front is the NASA shuttle carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747.  Behind that, sits a commercial aircraft that made an emergency landing at Ellington.  Not a bad view for the passengers on that plane!  (Photo credit to Sean Freeman)
A view you probably won’t see too often…in front is the NASA shuttle carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747. Behind that, sits a commercial aircraft that made an emergency landing at Ellington. Not a bad view for the passengers on that plane! (Image credit: Sean Freeman)






First Science Flight for SEAC4RS!

This post and photos were provided by Nick Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

Today was a busy day at Ellington Air Force Base.  SEAC4RS “took off” with our first science flight out of Houston.  Three planes were deployed:  the NASA DC-8, the NASA ER-2, and the SPEC Learjet (based in Huntsville, AL).  The goals of the flight were to examine southeastern United States chemistry and to fly through a growing cumulus cloud (but not growing too rapidly, of course!).

As a member of the meteorology (met) team, Jim Bresch rose before the sun to give last minute weather consultation for the flight.  Then, some of the met team prepared for “nowcasting,” while others put together a weather briefing for the remainder of the week (I told you it was a busy day!).  Nowcasting involves using current conditions to make short-range forecasts for the next 1-2 hours.  We had a group of people looking at the latest radar and satellite imagery and relaying information to the planes in real time.  The goal is to keep the planes safe, but also guide them to their target locations (such as a growing cloud).

The planes took off around 8 AM CDT, and things got lively in mission control.  The nowcasters were nowcasting, the flight navigators navigating, and everyone had something to contribute to the flight.  Things got interesting around 2PM when the DC-8 and Learjet began looking for storms to survey over northern Alabama.  Members of the met team were watching the radar and satellite to help the planes find a storm they could fly into.  For the weather nerds out there, the planes were looking for an isolated storm whose top was not higher than ~25,000 ft.  The nowcasters were using GR2Analyst to find these conditions, and relaying information and pictures up to the DC-8 in real time.  Eventually, the planes found a storm they could survey, and the Learjet and DC-8 both made passes through it.

While the planes were flying, the science team was preparing plans for the next flight, which is to take place Wednesday, 14 August 2013.  We had a meeting at 11 AM.  Mission meteorologist Lenny Pfister gave the weather outlook for the rest of the week.  Following that, Pablo Saide, from the University of Iowa, presented the atmospheric chemistry forecast for the same time frame.  Many interesting things were presented: very anomalous weather patterns, lots of convection, smoke plumes travelling into our region all the way from Idaho, and a large prescribed fire set to take place on Wednesday in South Florida.  In the end, the science team decided to focus the next flight on SE USA chemistry and the North American Monsoon.  Flight tracks currently are being drawn up to make the most of our situation.  It is amazing to watch the mission leaders synthesize all of this information, and then design a brilliant flight plan to capture all of the major features.  I guess there is a little artist in all of us scientists!

I will be back with more updates after our next flight.

People at tables and computers.
Mission control at Ellington Air Force Base. Things started getting busy after the DC-8 and ER-2 took off.
Fuelberg on a telephone at a desk.
Meteorologist Henry Fuelberg on his phone giving current weather updates to help coordinate a ozonesonde launch as a part of SEAC4RS.
Radar image of the involved aircraft.
Radar image showing the DC-8 (blue) and Learjet (green) as they meet up to sample a convective cloud. Nowcasters were watching this closely and relaying storm top heights to the scientists onboard the DC-8.
Learjet in the center of the convective cloud
The Learjet in the center of the convective cloud, as seen from GR2Analyst. Great science in the making!


New Blogger Bio – Nick Heath for SEAC4RS

This post and its photo was provided by Nicholas Heath, a student from Florida State University on the Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4RS) airborne science mission.

My name is Nick Heath.  I am a PhD student studying meteorology at Florida State University under Dr. Henry Fuelberg.  I started surfing when I was 16, and I immediately became interested in the weather and where waves come from.  This lead me to FSU, where I received a Bachelor’s in meteorology in 2011 and, more recently, a Master’s in June 2013.  My research involves chemical transport modeling.  Specifically, I am interested in how thunderstorms transport pollution from the surface to the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.  However, I am still a bit of a weather nerd on the side and I get to indulge in this passion here at SEAC4RS.  As a member of the meteorology team, I will get to help prepare weather briefings for each science flight.  When the planes are in flight, I sometimes will be a “nowcaster,” meaning that I will be watching radar and satellite to help keep the planes away from dangerous thunderstorms.

When I’m not doing research or forecasting, I enjoy surfing, basketball, reading, and cooking.


Time management at 40,000 ft. The temporal realities of an airborne observing flight.

So between takeoff at 7:25pm PDT and landing at 5:25am PDT,the flight planners had to keep us literally on track. There is an official flight plan that the pilots will follow and which has been worked out ahead of time with FAA air traffic control. It’s the result of a complex optimization strategy to calculate where one’s targets are in the sky and visible by the SOFIA telescope at given times and locations of this moving airborne platform,along with ensuring not entering no-fly areas, and of length and elevation appropriate for the amount of fuel on board to enable a 10 hour flight, with about 8 hrs at the desired 40,000 ft elevation. In addition, they need to look at seasonal weather patterns, and then on the final iteration of the flight plan, they take into account the most recent weather predictions. In ground-based astronomy,you can lose time on your objects by being “clouded out.” For airborne astronomy when you are above the clouds, your only threats to observation time are weather-related, but weather of another kind.

For more information about SOFIA flight planning see

Thus, you want to be smart to make the use of this unique facility flying in the skies getting you incredible access to the infrared wavelengths. So when our test plan was created, for each leg, we had prioritized which observations we needed to get done, our “baseline” versus observations of “the nice to have” flavor.  In case we lost time, we aimed to achieve that “baseline.” In case we were more efficient with setting up each observation than originally predicted, we might have more time to tackle the “nice to haves.” In ground-based astronomy where you don’t have such a tight timeline, unless of course the sun is rising or your object has gone below the horizon, you could easily extend your observations by a few minutes or so. For SOFIA, they do keep the leg duration strictly flown as planned with little room for time extension.

For Flight#105, we had 13 legs, of which legs #6-12 were“science.” Legs 1-5 were the ascent legs to get up and out of the LA congested airspace and get us to altitude.  Leg 13was the final descent back to Palmdale, CA. As I mentioned in the previous blog, within a few minutes after takeoff, even while we were still ascending at an angle, we were allowed to get up and walk about the aircraft. We used this time to get our computers and laptops all set up. The telescope operators got the telescope (the door is closed) up and running ready to go when the conditions allowed for the door to open. Actually on flight #105, we had to delay the door opening until we got above some high-altitude cirrus clouds, but it did not impact significantly the post-door opening telescope checkout in time for when we got on our 1st target.

Image of the science instrument & telescope guide game consoles between flight legs.

Image of the science instrument & telescope guide game consoles between flight legs.

We stayed all configured even as SOFIA turned between legs.You can see the computer screen on the right is the telescope guide cameras and the streaks are just stars going through the FOV.

The Flight Planner’s voice was a welcome reminder of the essence of time management. She did not speak that often, but often enough to put in reminders “30 minutes left on leg, 10 minutes left on leg,” etc. So when we started to deviate slightly from the observing plan because the script did not work, or the telescope lost lock on the target, etc. and you found yourself easily losing track of time, she grounded us back to the timeline. Our lead instrument scientist, Jim De Buizer, had to make calls on the fly to get back on track to accomplish the tests per leg. It’s a tough job to stay flexible but creative with how to get things done. And when you lose 10 minutes or so to turbulence, you have to re-insert yourself into the observation timeline to keep ticking off the tasks.

The Flight Planner was also in constant communication with the pilots who were talking with air traffic control to look at flight conditions. So another task she did was ask us about some possible real-time deviations for the next leg to “fly around weather” but still stay in the same area of the sky so that the observations were not affected (significantly). The net result is that you might lose some observation time up front at the trade of not having interrupted observing downstream. That was an interesting trade to see happen. And yes, on SOFIA Flight #105, when we were over the Dakotas and Kansas we had to do two deviations due to weather, but we managed to still get most of the data for those legs as a result. Had we not deviated, we most likely may have lost the entire leg’s observation.


View from the Mission Director and Flight Planner’s console

View from the Mission Director and Flight Planner’s console.

The central image shows a live view of where the aircraft at the specific time and also shows (by different colors) alternative flight trajectories in case the aircraft needs to divert for weather. Diverting due to weather happened two times on SOFIA Flight #105.

If you noticed in the pictures I posted, we are wearing headsets. There were not enough headsets for all passengers, so we traded off.The sound inside is like a typical 747 aircraft, maybe a bit on the noisier side (lots of computer racks and not much fabrics to absorb sound), but perfectly fine with ear buds. However, wearing the headsets and monitoring the channels helps immensely to know what is going on. There is no “Bleep. Please return to your seat” automated voice from above, but rather the Mission Director saying on the communication (comm) system “Guys, it’s time to sit down now.” And there is no “call-button” for assistance, you just talk where you are through the headset.

Typical view of operations during a SOFIA observation flight

Typical view of operations during a SOFIA observation flight

Typical view of operations during a SOFIA observation flight. We’re wearing headsets to communicate between all the stations on the aircraft.

 Getting back to headsets…it was quite fun, since part of the flight I was sitting at the “conference table” at mid-deck and we were just chatting with the science instrument folks who were near the telescope as if we were across the table. It was very efficient. We could stay at the “conference table” with our laptops hooked to the on-board internet doing the data analysis and report things we saw in the data to our colleagues who were more focused on trying to take the data and keep to the script schedule and interact with the telescope operators who had to do lots of telescope rewinds and target re-acquisitions.Plus, having this arrangement, kept people from crowded at the consoles. Of course, from time to time I wanted to be “at the action” and I would walk and re-plug in my headset up front if a port was open.

Doing data reduction between legs on SOFIA observing flight

Doing data reduction between legs on SOFIA observing flight

The photo above is Luke Keller from Ithaca College, sitting down with laptop, doing some grism 6 data reduction between legs. It was a good thing to share the flight with the imaging team as when they had an image intensive leg, we could escape and look at our data with our data reduction tools.

View from the science instrument consoles during an observation.

View from the science instrument consoles during an observation.

Screens from left to right are: FORCAST control,  FORCAST quick-look image display, Telescope Assembly Status Page, and the Guide cameras.In this image, we are executing a short chop of a point source.

So from our instrument scientist’s log, we had 16 tasks planned over the 6 science legs. We successfully completed 10/16, partially completed 5/16 (mainly due to lost of time from turbulence), and did not complete 1. Or about  88-90% completion rate, depending on how you count it. We’re learning as we go. We’ll use this information from this commissioning flight to improve our observing efficiency during science flights. But remember, these commissioning flights are designed to help us work out the basic modes and capabilities of the instruments and things are expected to not go as 100% as expected.

We have one more commissioning flight Thurs Jun 13th during which we will attempt to do cleanup from Tues’ flight plus address the tasks we had set for that flight (different flight plan is planned as we have different targets).

“Contents may shift during your flight.” Well, I may have, but not this 2.5 meter diameter telescope aboard SOFIA.

After boarding, we had some time before the doors closed. Asafety briefing was held. Upon entry to SOFIA, one objective, as this was arelatively “full flight” with 30 people, was to stake out a seat for take off(a comment was even made of the ‘Southwest Airlines’ way). Seats are scatteredabout the airplane for specific purposes and prior to this flight, mycolleagues and I had worked out our seating. We could only send one representative to the “conference table” seatingarea, so Martin Garay (a student at Ithaca College) and I were sentto business class, while Luke Keller (our grism lead, astronomy professor atIthaca College) sat at the “conference table” midway along thetelescope deck.

Sketch of the seating on the telescope deck on SOFIA.

Sketch of the seatingon the telescope deck on SOFIA. There are additional seats on the upper deck.

During the prep for takeoff, I took the moment to inspectthe on-board safety information card. It re-iterated what we learned in egresstraining and what was described as we boarded. Indeed the inside of this 747SPis very different from your normal airline experience and being aware of yoursurroundings wherever you are is important.

ompilation of photos of the SOFIA on-board safety information card.

Compilation of photosof the SOFIA on-board safety information card.

The engines started at 715pm PDT (local time), and we tookoff around 7:27pm PDT. It was a good 50 seconds for takeoff. And essentially, itfelt like a normal jet takeoff sitting up in the business class section.However, unlike a normal airline ride, within a few minutes we were allowed toget out of our seats. It was just so surreal to be walking down/up the planeduring the descent. It sort of felt wrong, as we are accustomed to the strict ruleson commercial aircraft, but it was so important to use any leg designed tobring the aircraft to the 40,000 ft science altitude, to do non-science thingslike setting up computers and testing connections between the systems. On thisflight, every second counts! And that theme was certainly reiterated throughoutthe night.

By 8pm PDT we were at 35,000 ft. The pilots had already completed3 legs of a 13-leg flight plan.

And at 825pm PDT, the telescope door opened! Within minutes,Joe Adams, the FORCAST lead instrument scientist, had started his first scriptto check out the detector frame rate settings.

One of the first data acquisitions of SOFIA Flight #105. Target is R Leo.

One of the first data acquisitionsof SOFIA Flight #105. Target is R Leo.

We hit pockets of turbulence during ascent and near the“weather” areas we had been warned about, and although the aircraft seemed tobe moving up/down/sideways, the telescope moved as well. It was mesmerizing tosee the FORCAST instrument and its counter weight moving about the cabin andyet the position of the star in the telescope guide camera was “rock solid.”Indeed, contents shifting during flight, but not this telescope! Two timesduring the light, the turbulence got bad enough that we had to return to ourseats and the telescope was “secured,” but both episodes lasted less than 10minutes.

From Jim Debuzier’s (the lead instrument scientist) log, hewrote: “09:45 [UTC] Turbulence like a roller coaster. Everyone’s sitting(whether they wanted to or not), and the telescope is in local. Riding it outuntil we can start observing again…)”

What was fascinating was that according to the missionmanager, we probably lost about an hour due to turbulence. We had to sit downabout 2x during the flight for a period of 10-15 minutes. I lost all track ofdurations of things, as I was focused on what data we lost by these unexpectedinterruptions. But each time we faced turbulence, we just took it in stride.Around 08:20 UTC (1:20am PDT) we also needed to do small flight diversion fromour Leg #9 to avoid some baby tornado clouds. This time the timing was good aswe were doing some calibration flats which did not need a target so we couldstill take data during the diversion.

You can see what the actual flight path was by visiting and searching onNASA747.

Screengrab of actual SOFIA Flight#105 flightpath Jun 11-12, 2013 from

Screengrab of actualSOFIA Flight#105 flightpath Jun 11-12, 2013 from

Screengrab of actual SOFIA Flight#105 altitude & speed Jun 11-12, 2013 from

Screengrab of loggedSOFIA altitude and speed for Flight#105 Jun 11-12, 2013 from

Kudos to the pilots for giving us a very good flight andworking with the weather patterns!

One thing to mention, as we were free to move about thecabin, each of us had to carry with us a EPOS, emergency passenger oxygensystem. In case there was a depressurization at 40,000ft, there would not beenough time to get to the nearest seat for oxygen masks. It was a smallnuisance to carry a bag with you everywhere, but it did not get in the way ofgetting the work done, planning, executing, and analyzing the data on theinstrument.

One of the passengers, a member of the DAOF staff, carrying his EPOS, the khaki-green pouch on a shoulder strap.

One of the passengers,a member of the DAOF staff, carrying his EPOS, the khaki-green pouch on ashoulder strap.

Science enabled by the platforms of Air & Space

I’m out here at NASA Dryden’s Aircraft Operations Facility,the DAOF, to support line operations for the Stratospheric Observatory forInfrared Astronomy, SOFIA. I’m normally a spacecraft science instrumentbuilder, having previously tested detectors for astronomy space telescopes Spitzerand JWST and building, testing and operating a 10 instrument payload for LCROSSthat impacted the moon in 2009 detecting water within a permanently shadowedcrater. And since 2011, I am working instrument calibration operations for theen-flight probe to Pluto, New Horizons.

Thus, SOFIA, being an aircraft, is a very different experiencefor me, coming from the spacecraft side of the house.

Sitting in the DAOF with SOFIA are some of the world’spremiere aircraft used for Earth Science observations, measuring in-situmolecules in our planet’s atmosphere, capitalizing on a mobile platform thatcan go monitor fires, or survey ice sheets at the poles, or observe transientphenomena like meteor showers or spacecraft or space-sample return capsules.

Check out this amazing suite of aircraft and theirobjectives at NASA’s Airborne Science Program:

NASA’s Airborne Science Program

Tonight we roll out ~8pm local time for first night of lineops from the 11pm-5am shift. I’m very eager to experience this important prep-activityfor SOFIA commissioning science flights which start next week.

More information about SOFIA's unique science can be found at NASA SOFIA Web Page