Federal Stimulus Funds Aid UW's King Air

July 26, 2010
Man working
Matt Burkhart, a research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science, calibrates instruments inside King Air, the University of Wyoming's uniquely-instrumented research aircraft. (UW Photo)

King Air has long been a tremendous ambassador for the University of Wyoming.

Now more than ever.

The university's uniquely-instrumented research aircraft, with numerous specialized meteorological sensors and data recording equipment, has undergone a transformation thanks to a recent $470,000 injection of federal stimulus funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The funding helped facilitate upgrades to instrumentation, radar and the aircraft itself -- highlighted by the acquisition of a 4-bladed propeller system that will improve King Air's efficiency and performance.

"These are all enhancements," says Al Rodi, director of UW's Donald Veal Flight Research Center and head of the Department of Atmospheric Science in the College of Engineering. "It's not that we'll be doing anything we haven't done in the past. It just lets us do what we already do, only better."

Ironically, Tristan LeCuyer, a researcher from Colorado State University -- UW's chief athletics rival -- will have the first opportunity to try out the newly-upgraded King Air. The twin turboprop is headed to Finland next month for a six- to eight-week, NASA-funded research project.

This will be just the latest international expedition for King Air, which has logged about 7,000 air hours since debuting in 1977, visiting Japan and Saudi Arabia, among other places. Its' predecessors, a twin-engine Beechcraft in the 1960s and Queen Air in the early ‘70s, helped establish UW as a premier airborne research university.

"We have been doing this for a long, long time with a lot of clever and dedicated people here at UW, and I think these three aircraft have really brought a lot of distinction to the University of Wyoming," says Rodi. "They have all been well-known, well-respected and great ambassadors for the university."

The recent upgrades will only strengthen UW's reputation.

In addition to the 4-bladed propeller system, which also serves to reduce or eliminate the production of aircraft produced ice particles that can contaminate measurements in the clouds, King Air's avionics were equipped with an XM weather interface that offers near real-time monitoring of Next-Generation Radar, or NEXRAD, a network of 159 high-resolution Doppler weather radars operated by the National Weather Service.

"This is a critical addition for the type of research flying we do," says Rodi. "Most airplanes do all they can to avoid weather. But we go out of our way to find weather."

The other additions included upgrades to King Air's basic instrument package -- including a new integrated inertial measurement unit to provide improved accuracy, precision and frequency to measurements of aircraft attitude and velocity -- and an upgrade to the Wyoming Cloud Radar that will improve accuracy of airborne Doppler velocity measurements and the system's polarization capabilities.

"The enhancements provided through NSF stimulus funding are quite important, all the more so because there is not a well-defined path to obtain funding for much of the equipment," says Jeff French, project manager for King Air. "We spend much of our time on the cutting edge, looking to do new things. It is often difficult to secure funds that will provide equipment that may not let you do something new, but rather be more efficient and better at what you already do."

The NSF grant to aid upgrades to King Air was one of 21 awards, totaling more than $10 million, to UW last year in areas of advanced scientific research, scholarship advancement and outreach.

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