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King Air's latest research mission was a success.
It may also have been a springboard.
The University of Wyoming's uniquely-instrumented research aircraft -- equipped with numerous specialized meteorological sensors and data recording equipment -- made its return to international skies earlier this fall, flying over Finland for five weeks on a NASA-funded experiment that has bolstered King Air's already-impressive resume and rejuvenated its appeal to researchers across the United States.
"This really expands the resume of King Air and the University of Wyoming," says Brett Wadsworth, chief research pilot in the UW Department of Atmospheric Science. "We'd gone overseas in the past, going to Saudi Arabia and going to Japan, with this aircraft . . ."
"But," chimes in Jeff French, project manager for UW King Air, "it was all a long time ago."
Wadsworth speaks up again: "We've refreshed our resume and now we can say, ‘Yes, you know what, we can do that again.'"
On its first major research mission since a $470,000 injection of federal stimulus funds from the National Science Foundation facilitated upgrades to instrumentation, radar and the aircraft itself, UW King Air served as airborne headquarters for researchers to compare measurements of cloud particles and raindrops against precipitation models and observations from CloudSat, NASA's first cloud-profiling radar in orbit.
The clouds studied during the experiment produce light, steady rainfall that contribute a large percentage of the fresh water that supports populations in cities at higher latitudes -- such as Helsinki, the capital of Finland and focal point of the experiment.
"The aircraft was perfect for our purposes," says principal investigator Tristan L'Ecuyer, a research scientist at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins. "It was quite the success . . . We're very confident that the aircraft data will be ideal for our study."
Following a 22-hour trip from Wyoming to Finland -- with stops in Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Norway -- UW King Air spent 52 hours in the skies above Finland from Sept. 15-Oct. 20. A typical mission ranged from 3 ½ to 4 hours, with Wadsworth or one of two other pilots at the controls and researchers working to collect data to measure precipitation in the clouds.
Researchers were funded for 66 hours of flight time, but weather sometimes forced them to scrap plans. It just wasn't the weather that usually prevents planes from taking to the air.
"There was a period of time in the middle of the project where the weather was not conducive for research. It was essentially two weeks of sunshine and blue skies," French says with a laugh. "Everybody was happy about it -- except for those of us who wanted to study the weather."
He adds, "During that time, you would just wait for the weather to get better. Or, actually, worse."
Researchers needed inclement or overcast weather conditions to collect data from high-latitude clouds. The data were then compared to CloudSat measurements to ensure that the radar's predictions and models are working.
L'Ecuyer's research team included two colleagues from CSU -- research scientist Matt Lebsock and graduate student Norm Wood -- as well as scientists from UW, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the University of Helsinki and Environment Canada.
When the experiment was over, Tom Drew and Ahmad Bandani piloted the UW aircraft on a similar route from Finland to its hangar at the Donald L. Veal Flight Research Center at the Laramie Regional Airport.
"The plane," Wadsworth says, "performed as well as we could have expected."
Now, UW King Air awaits its next assignment. And another trip overseas may come sooner rather than later.
Based on the aircraft's latest success, French says he's already been contacted about another project in Europe.
"It's still early in the game. But to be able to say, ‘Yes, we've done it and here are the results of a recent project,' certainly makes it much more appealing to a funding agency to consider utilizing our aircraft to go overseas," he says. "It's one more thing on our resume."