NASA uses Savannah’s Hunter Army Airfield to house weather research plane

Local News

SAVANNAH, GA. (WSAV) — From now through March 1, Hunter Army Airfield will be home to a unique NASA plane — and the first project of its kind in 30 years.

NASA scientists and pilots are using its ER-2 weather research plane, which has been based at the airfield since Jan. 15,  to study snowstorms that happen along the eastern United States coast. 

It’s part of NASA’s Investigation of Microphysics Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms campaign, or IMPACTS for short.

“Snowstorms in the Northeast cause a lot of headaches for people, so we’re really interested in understanding more about these storms,” Dr. Gerry Heymsfield, a key researcher for the IMPACTS campaign, told News 3.

Heymsfield has been working with the ER-2 for over 30 years and has three radar instruments on board that measure the structure of clouds below the aircraft.

“Now [compared to 30 years ago], we have a lot more instrumentation on airplanes that can help us understand how snow forms,” he said.

One of the main areas of interest in this campaign is snow bands, Heymsfield says.

“A lot of the snow storms that we have in the Northeast have banded structure,” Heymsfield said. “The bands may be 50 miles or 100 miles wide, and we don’t know a lot about how the bands form, but these are very hard to forecast in weather models.”

With the data collected, researchers hope to improve weather forecast models by learning more about how these storms form, as well as the processes involved in their formation.

NASA chose to operate the former CIA plane out of Hunter Army Airfield because while the plane helps collect data for snowstorms, it’s not great at landing and taking off in them. 

With the lack of snow that affects the Savannah area, the East Coast military installation turned out to be a great location. 

IMPACTS researchers are planning for 10 flights during this project, which began on Jan. 17.

When we look up now, we see a light blue, but when you get to 65,000 and 70,000 feet, that light blue becomes just a very thin band along the surface, and then above that, it gets very dark very quickly, to almost black overhead.”

– Cory Bartholomew, NASA ER-2 pilot

During that time, the ER-2 will work with another plane based out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia — the P-3 Orion research aircraft — which will fly at the same time as the ER-2.

“When we send two planes up flying, we have a coordinator for the planes at the facility in Virginia,” Heymsfield said. “He sends them on flight tracks that are very similar, and so the two planes are approximately over each other during the flight.”

The P-3 plane, which is designed to fly through the snowstorms, has cloud probes fitted under its wings that help it measure the sizes and shapes of snowflakes, as well as water vapor and temperature, according to NASA.

During each flight, researchers gather data from each of the planes.

“It’s a limited sample, but.we get quick looks of what’s going on under the plane, what the structure of the clouds is like, and then, after the plane lands, we download all the data onto discs and we process it over several months to get data for scientists to use,” Heymsfield said.

NASA pilot Cory Bartholomew says during their flights so far, he and the five other pilots that fly the ER-2 have reached heights of 65,000 feet while the P-3 plane flies below at 10,000 feet. 

“[We then] compare the data from those two altitudes as we fly along in formation, separated by only about 10 miles of altitude,” Bartholomew told News 3. 

“Last week when we flew, we actually flew both airplanes under a satellite track as it flew overhead, so we got to compare the data from about 15,000 feet, 65,000 feet  and probably, you know, 250 miles,” he said. 

For the IMPACTS campaign, the ER-2 remains around 65,000 feet, but Bartholomew says it’s capable of flying even higher — and when it does, he says it’s an otherworldly view.

“When you get even higher, it gets even better,”  he said. “The sky overhead gets very dark. and when we look up now, we see a light blue, but when you get to 65,000 and 70,000 feet, that light blue becomes just a very thin band along the surface, and then above that, it gets very dark very quickly, to almost black overhead,” Bartholomew said, calling the unique vantage point “humbling.”

“It reminds you of how very small, vulnerable and sort of fragile we are as human beings,” he said.

The ER-2’s most recent flight happened Wednesday afternoon.

The IMPACTS campaign will also take place during the winters of 2021 and 2022.

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