Hurricane Hunter Aircraft Now Tracking Earth’s Shrinking Ice Caps

By HOWARD ALTMAN, The Tampa Tribune | April 6, 2016

It is the morning of the last test flight before the first joint NASA-NOAA mission to map melting ice caps, and Miss Piggy is being difficult.

Sitting on the flight line just outside Hangar 5 at MacDill Air Force Base, the venerable Orion P-3, refurbished three years ago, is oozing some hydraulic fluid. And just before the first take-off attempt, the No. 2 engine has to be shut down because of a stuck valve.

Miss Piggy, famous for flying into hurricanes to gather information about storm tracks, now is being pressed into service for NASA because of what can only be described as a perfect storm.

Miss Piggy and Kermit. Photos: NOAAThe mission is part of Operation IceBridge, a $15-million-a-year NASA program to investigate Earth’s polar ice in the greatest detail ever to better understand processes that connect the polar regions with the global climate system.

By using the most advanced radar, lasers and other equipment, the project’s goal is to track the annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets. The data collected is used to predict how Earth’s polar ice reacts to climate change and how sea levels rise as a result.

The trouble is that the first Earth elevation satellite NASA launched in the program, called ICE-SAT 1, failed in 2009, and the next one, ICE-SAT 2, isn’t set to go up until 2017. Operation IceBridge was created in 2009 to plug the data gap so scientists can still keep track of the ice. Each spring, pilots fly over the Arctic to the north, and in the fall, over the Antarctic to the south.

To do that, NASA needs a plane. So in November, NASA officials reached out to the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center at MacDill. The parties ironed out a $2 million deal to use Miss Piggy and 10 crew members for about a month on Operation IceBridge.

“It’s amazing how quickly this came together,” says John Woods, NASA’s project manager, who has come to Tampa to oversee the preparations.

Twenty-two scientists and a flight crew will jump off from MacDill to Thule Air Base in Greenland to begin a grueling, four- to six-week mission flying over glaciers and land and sea ice. At MacDill, final testing is under way on the equipment for the mission.

The tests involve flying 200 miles west over the Gulf of Mexico and turning Miss Piggy into an airborne version of Busch Gardens’ SheiKra diving roller coaster, with 60-degree rolls and sharp 200-foot pitches, all to make sure the equipment is set properly for the mission ahead.

Each flight tests the men, their equipment and the plane. There are frustrations, but one three-hour journey over the Gulf of Mexico last week showcased how crews from two different federal agencies with two different cultures can snap together in the name of science.

Just after 3 p.m., the flight crew cranks up all four engines, and Miss Piggy slowly makes her way to Runway 22, where she rumbles down the runway and takes off, flying west over Fort De Soto, the last spit of land the team will see for hours.

As the scientists settle into their seats and get their gear ready for the upcoming tests, Woods, the NASA project manager, talks about what lies ahead.

For the first part of the mission, the NASA-NOAA team will be at Thule Air Base in Greenland for three weeks. Then they load up Miss Piggy and fly her across the Arctic to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Thule is the U.S. military’s northernmost base. It also has very limited flying hours, Woods says. It opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. each weekday, and Miss Piggy will be flying as many of those eight-hour windows as possible.

There are long days ahead.

The official work begins with a 5 a.m. weather briefing, so the team will wake up even earlier to grab some food. After flying all day, there is an after-mission briefing at 5 p.m., then it’s off to the chow hall.

Shortly after 4 p.m., NOAA Cmdr. Scott Price sounds the alarm warning passengers to strap in.

As the flight crew prepares for maneuvers, Price, who has flown the IceBridge missions before, offers advice to the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Nate Kahn.

“The scenery is awesome,” Price says. “Some of the coolest flying you will ever do. If you’ve got a camera, bring it.”

A short while later, with Miss Piggy cruising along at 20,000 feet, Kahn turns the yoke to the left, causing the plane to lean over.

“Thirty degrees,” he says, calmly. “Now 45. 60.”

After punching through some clouds, Kahn reaches his destination. He pulls the yoke back, and Miss Piggy rises. After 200 feet, Kahn pushes the yoke forward and Miss Piggy drops 400 feet. It’s twice the distance of SheiKra’s vertical dive.

Kahn does the pitch maneuver two more times, then guides the plane eastward back to MacDill.

There is one more test to go before this flight is over.

In order to calibrate the laser system, the plan is to take several passes over MacDill, firing the laser over a known area. That will help ensure the system is properly set up on Miss Piggy.

Once the signal is given allowing passengers to unbuckle, an excited Yungel, who had been worried about the seeping hydraulic fluid, comes bounding toward the cabin with a picture on his cellphone.

The image shows a low-altitude laser measuring test over MacDill, proof the system is properly synched and working as designed.

“Dead on,” he says with a smile.

Though there are still a few bugs to be worked out, Woods says everything is on schedule. Friday, Miss Piggy flew to Texas to get her fuel tanks repaired.

It should return this week, ready to head to Thule on Saturday.

Says Woods, “When it comes back, we will load it up and go.”

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