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!