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UW Aims to Replace King Air Research Aircraft

April 1, 2015
King Air Research Aircraft
UW’s 38-year-old King Air research aircraft sits at an airport tarmac in Iceland. Last month, the state Legislature provided $250,000 in one-time funding for UW to begin planning for acquisition and equipping of a new research aircraft. (Baldur Sveinsson Photo)

For more than 38 years, the Beechcraft King Air 200T, the University of Wyoming’s research aircraft, has flown into weather most pilots would rather avoid. For the sake of science, the plane has breached heavy snow and thunderstorms to learn more about how these precipitations occur and act in the atmosphere.

But the atmospheric research aircraft is approaching its limits, say UW researchers who use and manage the research facility. Limited to 10,000 flight hours under Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, the plane is quickly approaching the 8,000 flight-hour threshold.

While the plane is still safe for more research missions, now is the time to begin plans to replace the twin-engine turboprop, says Al Rodi, professor in UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science.

“The aircraft is nearing the end of its life,” says Rodi, who serves as facility manager for the research King Air and director of UW’s Flight Center. “We’re getting to the point of being nervously close. It’s time to look forward to a new airplane.”

Earlier this month, as part of UW’s supplemental budget request, the state Legislature provided $250,000 in one-time funding for UW to begin planning for acquisition and equipping of a new research aircraft.

UW has owned the King Air since 1977, when it was purchased for $1 million. Over the ensuing years, additional millions have been spent for instrumentation and airframe modification, such as for radar and LIDAR.

But, as the years go on, such new installations, as well as maintenance, become increasingly difficult, says Jeff French, project manager of King Air and a UW assistant professor of atmospheric science. In 1977, no one envisioned you would want to have a computer inside the aircraft with instruments on the wing communicating via fiber-optic cable, he says.

“We’re constantly coming up with new instruments. Every time you come up with a new instrument, you have to find a way to bolt it onto the airframe,” French explains. “With a new aircraft, you can start with a clean slate. With an old plane, you have to work with the modifications you have. It becomes harder as you add new instruments.”

While numerous parts of the aircraft, such as the engine and avionics, can be maintained or replaced, it is the airframe or body that is limited to 10,000 flight hours, French says. The airframe eventually suffers from what French termed “metal fatigue,” which can result in cracks or micro-cracks to the aircraft’s structural integrity.

Either French or Larry Oolman, another project manager, flies on every King Air flight for safety and mission purposes. The project manager’s primary job is to ensure the scientist(s) and the pilot communicate in such a way that it leads to a successful mission, French says.

“The reason we think it’s a good idea to replace it (King Air) is because we don’t know how flying in turbulent conditions, such as thunderstorms, has affected it,” French says of the precipitation pounding the plane has taken over the years. “We don’t know how well the airframe has withstood the motions.”

Research capabilities

The university has been a part of National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Lower Atmospheric Observing Facilities (LAOF) since 1987. Under a cooperative agreement, the NSF provides $2 million in base funding annually to UW. The funding helps pay for the staff of 16 individuals, including engineers, technicians, two mechanics and three pilots, who maintain and fly the aircraft. In exchange, UW provides the plane and instrumentation to NSF-funded investigators as “a national facility,” French says.

The aircraft’s remote sensing capabilities include the radar and LIDAR. LIDAR, an acronym for light detection and ranging, is an optic remote sensing technology that can detect and measure cloud droplets in the atmosphere. Water droplets and ice crystals are detected by multiple beams of the radar and can be used to produce dual-Doppler wind analyses. Both the radar and LIDAR can provide vertical “curtain” views of cloud structure.

For an NSF video of Lower Atmospheric Observing Facilities (LAOF) that includes the research King Air, go to http://content.yudu.com/A263jy/LAOFguide/resources/index.htm?referrerUrl=http%3A%2F%2Finternal-dev.eol.ucar.edu%2Flaof.

Typical missions, which can fly up to altitudes of 28,000 feet, include studies of boundary layer structure, air-sea interactions, cloud and aerosol physics, troposphere profiling and atmospheric chemistry.

About 50 percent of the research conducted with King Air is related to cloud physics. Another 30 percent focuses on aerosols and air quality, French says. The remaining 20 percent of the aircraft’s research hours are spent on the exchange of energy between the surface of the Earth and its lower atmosphere.

For the past two years, Bart Geerts, a UW professor of atmospheric science, has used the King Air for a cloud-seeding or weather modification study administered by the Wyoming Water Development Office. Cloud seeding is a process in which silver iodide is released into the clouds through generators strategically placed upwind of the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges. The silver iodide facilitates ice crystal formation.

Due to water shortages and droughts in some states and in countries around the world, cloud seeding is seen as a potential way to increase water supplies for communities and for irrigating crops.

This summer, Geerts, with a $1.15 million NSF grant, is using the King Air to study how thunderstorms form at night over the southern Great Plains.

In December 2013 and January 2014, Geerts was one of the lead investigators in the Ontario Lake-Effect Systems (OWLeS) project. The study was conducted to better understand why so much lake-effect snow falls on the shores of Lake Ontario in northern New York state each winter.

During the past few years, researchers elsewhere have used King Air for projects in Antigua, Dominica, England and Finland.

The King Air has not only aided UW professors and those elsewhere. It also has benefited UW’s students, says Bill Gern, UW’s vice president for research and economic development.

“The King Air has provided data to hundreds of advanced degree students in the fields of atmospheric sciences, aerosol and cloud physics, weather modification technology, and meso-scale and boundary layer meteorology,” Gern says. “Many of these students are now leaders in their respective fields and are providing critically important information about the Earth’s atmosphere, its weather and climate.”

For a rundown of UW King Air research deployments since 2004, go to http://flights.uwyo.edu/n2uw/projects/projects.shtml

“It’s kind of an ambassador for the university,” Rodi says of the King Air. “This is a core facility and a large asset to UW. The goal is to keep it going for a long period of time.”

A long runway to go

While Rodi and French say it’s time to look toward acquiring a new airplane, they agree it won’t happen overnight. They figure it could take up to five or more years to acquire and put a new aircraft into service. That includes time to raise the money, put the project out to a request for proposals, and another two years to construct, modify and certify the plane. More time will be needed to outfit it with the latest instrumentation.

UW Master Technician Brent Glover - King AirBut the $250,000 the Legislature granted to UW to study the purchase of a new King Air in the future is a start.

“The $250,000 is important to enable us to begin the planning and engineering process for the extensive modifications that are needed,” Rodi says. “Preparing the modification and certification plans will avoid delays once the funding is in place for the acquisition of the aircraft.”

Rodi and French anticipate it will cost about $10 million to purchase a new airplane, plus an additional amount for modifications. The King Air 350 ER (Extended Range) they are looking at would have bigger engines, a larger cabin, and more range and power than the current King Air. The King Air 350 ER also would be able to handle 16,500 pounds upon lift-off, which is more than the 14,000 the current King Air can hoist during take-off.

“It’s the big brother of the current airplane,” Rodi says. “We figure it will take $10 million for the kind of airplane we want.”

Rodi and French plan to visit Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kan., this fall to look at a King Air 350 ER.

UW is unique in terms of a university owning its own aircraft and receiving NSF national facility funding.

“King Air is the only NSF aircraft facility that is owned by a university,” French says.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., operates a Gulfstream V and a C-130 under a cooperative agreement with NSF, French says. The University of North Dakota, Purdue University and San Diego State University do own their own research planes but, unlike UW, do not receive NSF facility funding, he adds. And those other university aircraft are not as extensively instrumented for the wide variety of missions as is UW’s King Air.

“We would like to own the (new) plane ourselves. We own this (current) plane. We’re not interested in using a plane owned by the federal government,” French says. “Even though the King Air is a national facility, it belongs to UW. We want the flexibility that we gain from being a non-federal aircraft.”

Rodi added that keeping the aircraft as Wyoming-owned “gives us more flexibility on how it will be used and the types of contracts we can support. The top priority for this airplane is to support UW faculty and student research.”

“King Air gives UW international prominence in addition to providing enormously important information about the Earth’s atmosphere that is relevant to the needs of the state of Wyoming,” Gern says. “It is important that we seek a new technology replacement for this important research tool.”


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Chad Baldwin

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