By Grant Allen
So here we are on another exciting expedition to the Arctic. One of my roles in the project is to plan the flights that we will do and to coordinate the wider flight planning team. There are various things that have to be balanced and kept in mind and a lot of skill and people inform this very complex process. This involves designing the flight path to optimize sampling of the atmosphere within the constraints of the weather, the aviation rules and instrument requirements (e.g. calibrations) in order to meet the science objectives of the day. For MAMM, this means detecting small enhancements of methane and other trace gases and determining their source and source strength. Put simply, this means lots of low level flying and flying over wider areas to characterise the methane “background” and local (and long-range) emission sources. This blog details the planning process and other blog entries will discuss the science.
The Atmospheric Research Aircraft (run by FAAM, a joint NERC/Met Office facility) is a converted passenger jet that has had most of the seats ripped out and replaced with state-of-the-art scientific instruments. Many of these instruments are operated by dedicated highly trained scientists and up to 18 may be on board on any one flight. The scientists coordinate in flight with the “Mission Scientists” who are the team of people who coordinate the flight plan and its design and make decisions in the air based on the data reported to them.
But a lot has to happen before the plane leaves the ground and flight design starts several days before take-off by looking at weather forecasts and prioritizing science objectives around things like cloud cover, rain and wind direction. The planning team holds teleconferences daily to keep updated on the weather and any other information that impinges on the priority list until a final decision is made on what type of flight (e.g. low level of the land surface or high over the sea) will be conducted.
After this decision has been made, a sortie brief is created by the mission scientists, which is passed to staff at FAAM, Directflight (who operate the aircraft) and the pilots, who create an operational flight plan and advise on any aviation restrictions that might be in force. Sometimes this requires the flight plan to be iterated by the planning team and the flight plan is typically finalized within 24 hours of take-off.
Two hours before take-off, the lead mission scientist (mission scientist 1, MS1) briefs the science and aircrew team on the flight plan and the scientific objectives and there is an open discussion of what to look out for, or any requirements from the instrument scientists. And then it’s all aboard.
Shortly after take off, everyone goes to work, examining the data that is coming in in real-time and feeding interesting observations forward to MS1 so that decisions can be made in the air about potential changes to the flight plan that can optimize sampling (for example, if we’ve detected a strong plume of methane along the way). This is then discussed between the MS team and with the Captain, who has the final say on whether the plan can be modified. It is fair to say that the pilots (and everyone at FAAM and Directflight) bend over backwards to give us the best science that is possible and the scientific success we’ve had from FAAM data are testament to this.
For MAMM, we will be doing “double flights”. This means about 10 hours of flying a day with a 1-hour refuel. It is a very long day for the instrument scientists who have to switch on instruments and perform various pre-flight tasks 4 hours before take-off. So we’re looking at 16 hour days for most people. This long day and the fact that we will fly every day also means that there will be two planning teams – a blue and a red team. The Blue team will be led by Grant Allen and the red team by Keith Bower and coordinated with Sam Illingworth, John Pyle, Nicola Warwick and Michelle Cain. The teams will take it in turns to plan the flights for the following day, which they will then fly while the other team does the planning. Of course, the blue team will get the best science….
Previously in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX