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NASA in Alaska 2014: A Pilot’s Life at 65,000 Feet over Alaska

July 28th, 2014 by Valerie Casasanto

As the ER-2 pilot got ready for his first flight out of Fairbanks, I wondered what it’s like piloting the aircraft, all by himself, 65,000 feet up.

Denis Steele sets up a video camera in the cockpit of the ER-2, 65,000 feet over Alaska's southern mountains.

Denis Steele sets up a video camera in the cockpit of the ER-2, 65,000 feet over Alaskan mountains and glaciers. (Credit: Denis Steele/NASA)

The NASA ER-2 pilots for this campaign, Tim Williams and Denis Steele, are flying the MABEL instrument to study the glaciers and ice sheets. Before they fly, they have to get suited up. It’s quite a process. Because the altitude is so high, they need to wear pressure suits. I talked with expert NASA engineer technicians Raul Cortes and Ryan Ragsdale, who are veterans in testing equipment and prepping pilots before a flight to ensure safety.

The involved process starts the day before a flight, when Cortes and Ragsdale prepare the pressure suit. They check the pressure and make sure there are no leaks in the gloves, body suit, and helmet. They put the whole system together and inflate it, like a giant balloon character, to test that the suit will properly pressurize.

Engineer Technician Ryan Ragsdale of NASA Dryden inflates the pressure suit the day before to make sure there are no leaks. (No, there is not a real person in there!). (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

Engineer Technician Ryan Ragsdale of NASA Dryden inflates the pressure suit the day before to make sure there are no leaks. (No, there is not a real person in there!). (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

When a pilot puts on the suit, it’s bulky and stiff, so it’s difficult to work in. And it’s difficult to eat in. During the long flights, pilots eat and drink out of a straw.

The food is the consistency of pudding, and the straw feeds through a small hole in the helmet of their pressure suit. I asked what was on the menu for one flight. They have a choice that includes beef stroganoff, pears, caffeinated chocolate pudding (which happens to be Cortes’ and ER-2 crew member Luis Rios’ favorite). I was curious about this chocolate pudding, but given a free sample of the “pears” — which tasted like part baby food, part applesauce, with a pear afternote.

Pears in a tube. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

Pears in a tube. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

The caffeinated chocolate pudding used to be Williams’ favorite until he switched to the caffeinated apple pie. Mmmm, wonder if there are crusts in there too. When Steele first started flying, he ate the tube food. But sometimes it would get messy. One time a pilot was heating up a “sloppy joe” tube and it accidentally squirted out all over the cockpit. Now Steele just drinks water. You can easily dehydrate up there since you are breathing pure oxygen.

I thought it must be pretty confining in that suit with not much room to move, so talked with the Steele and Williams to see what the space is like for their 8-hour journey. The cockpit seemed to be about the size of half of a bob sled. Or, according to Steele, “if you throw a blanket over your head and body and lift your arms out a little, it’s that area between you and the blanket.” Just a little bit of room to move around, and a bit of leg room (unless a pilot is really tall). However, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic, Williams said, because they have good visibility.

Engineer Technician Ryan Ragsdale, of NASA Dryden, inflates the pressure suit the day before to make sure there are no leaks. (No, there is not a real person in there!). Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA

The ER-2′s cockpit, with little room for movement. Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA

When they’re up in the stratosphere, pilots keep a close watch on the plane’s instruments, Steele said. “You are always thinking – watching the instruments, doing science, mental math, calculations, thinking about what you would do in an emergency situation.”

They even do puzzles. On one flight last week Williams did Sudoku to keep entertained. You can also plug in to play music, although there are stories of colleagues playing tricks on the pilots, and programing in Disney music prior to flight.

Long flights at high altitudes do have effects, Steele said, and pilots need to be careful and not exercise too much after they land.

 Ryan Ragsdale carries empty water bottles and pilot’s helmet back to hangar after a long day’s flight. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)


Ryan Ragsdale carries empty water bottles and pilot’s helmet back to hangar after a long day’s flight. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

“Being at 60,000 ft. does drain you, especially if you are working hard,” he said. “The time you are working hardest is when you take off and land. The pilot does a lot of movements to keep the plane stable at low altitudes. It wears you out. But you get used to it, it’s like driving a car!”

NASA in Alaska 2014: A Frozen Fieldtrip from Fairbanks

July 21st, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer

Not content with looking at ice from the air, on their day off from flying last week the MABEL and ER-2 team decided to look at ice underground. About a dozen of us went to visit the Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, a U.S. Army site north of Fairbanks, Alaska, where the crew is based for a summer campaign.

Cut into a forested bluff, with just a red, shed-like structure leading into the hillside, the Permafrost Tunnel doesn’t look like much from the outside. But inside, there are thousands of years of sediments, plants, and ice-age mammal bones frozen in the wall.

The Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, dug in the mid-1960s, allows scientists a three-dimensional look at frozen ground. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA

The Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, dug in the mid-1960s, allows scientists a three-dimensional look at frozen ground. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA

It’s hard to say what you notice first: the cold or the smell. The cold – it’s kept at a brisk negative 3 degrees Celsius (26.6 degrees Fahrenheit) – is now maintained during the summer with a chiller system. Opening and closing the tunnel door for decades, along with warming outside air temperatures, would otherwise melt the permafrost. The smell, explained our guide Tom Douglas, a geophysicist with the Army who conducts research in the tunnel, is from all the decaying organic material in the walls – plant and animal matter – coming into contact with the air and oxidizing.

A mammal bone sticks out of the wall of the Permafrost Tunnel. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

A mammal bone sticks out of the wall of the Permafrost Tunnel. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

Permafrost is ground that stays frozen for more than two years – including the summer months. In cold areas like Central and Northern Alaska, permafrost can build up over millennia, creating a kind of time capsule. In the Permafrost Tunnel, tiny roots of grasses and trees that lived 20,000 to 30,000 years ago drip from the ceiling.

“They’re preserved,” Douglas said. “They tend to be freeze-dried a little bit.” A giant, and surprisingly heavy, mammoth femur was found in the tunnel; horns of bison-like creatures still stick out of the wall. In a wedge of ice cutting through the permafrost, Douglas explained, researchers had melted a sample and found microscopic organisms that hadn’t been previously described.

The tunnel turned up a variety of ice-aged mammal bones - including the giant leg bone of a mammoth. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

The tunnel turned up a variety of ice-aged mammal bones – including the giant leg bone of a mammoth. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

The ice wedges themselves are some of the tunnel’s most impressive. They’re created when the surface of the ground freezes and contracts in the winter, creating cracks in the ground. When spring comes, meltwater fills in those cracks, freezing when it reaches the permafrost layer. The next winter, when the ground cracks again, it often does so along the weak areas where it cracked before – and then another round of spring meltwater freezes, pushing the ground apart even further. Over the years, a lattice-work of wedges forms.

Ice wedges form over centuries, creating polygonal patterns in the permafrost. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

Ice wedges form over centuries, creating polygonal patterns in the permafrost. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

The tunnel was dug in the mid-1960s, Douglas said, and has been used for a variety of research. One question he investigates is how well different radars and surveying equipment can identify underlying permafrost, which is key for building and road construction – you don’t want to build on ground that could thaw.

The necessity for that kind of research was evident on the way back to Fairbanks – the road dips along the hillside, thanks to the dynamic ground underneath.

NASA in Alaska 2014: A View of the Top of the World

July 18th, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer
NASA pilot Tim Williams flew over the North Pole Wednesday. It was a cloudy day at 90 degrees North, as seen through the ER-2's viewsight. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

The North Pole! NASA pilot Tim Williams flew over the pole Wednesday afternoon. It was a cloudy day at 90 degrees north, as seen through the ER-2′s viewsight. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

Fly north from Fairbanks and after a while, you’ll be off the map. Literally, as ER-2 pilot Tim Williams found out Thursday when he flew the NASA aircraft on a mission to the North Pole and back.

“At some point, the map’s not there,” he said at a post-flight debrief Thursday evening.

"Here be monsters" - or just map projection issues. Once the ER-2 got above about 89.5 degrees North, the pilot's map didn't cover it. Those of us tracking the plane from https://airbornescience.nasa.gov/tracker/ lost the map even earlier.

“Here be monsters” – or just map projection issues. Once the ER-2 got above about 89.5 degrees North, the pilot’s map didn’t cover it. Those of us tracking the plane from https://airbornescience.nasa.gov/tracker/ lost the map even earlier.

Williams flew due north along the 150 degrees west longitude line, carrying scientific instruments including MABEL, a laser altimeter that scientists are using to develop software for the upcoming ICESat-2 satellite mission. The goal for the pole-bound trip was to gather data over the spectrum of summer ice – from open water, to degrading ice, to thin ice, to multiyear ice, with some melt ponds on the way.

It was a smooth and cloudy trip up, Williams reported, and through breaks in the clouds he could see cracking ice below.

Sea ice, as seen through the ER-2's viewsight, on the 150 degree latitude line north of Alaska. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

Sea ice, as seen through the ER-2′s viewsight, on the 150 degree latitude line north of Alaska. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

“I expected it to be a lot more solid; it’s not,” he said. “It doesn’t look thick where I could see it.”

After about four hours in the air he reached the pole – 90 degrees latitude. His instincts were to look at the compass onboard, but it was “just a mess, it’s all over the place,” Williams said. At one point, his compass showed 180 degrees opposite from his navigation system.

On top of the world! Tim Williams piloted the ER-2 to the North Pole - it's all south from here. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

On top of the world! Tim Williams piloted the ER-2 to the North Pole – it’s all south from here. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

Still, he knew which way to go: “When you hit the pole, everything is to the south. So you just make a turn,” Williams said.

He rolled out, circling from the pole, until his navigation system gave him a heading. He found the 140 degree line, and flew back to Fairbanks – headed south.

NASA pilot Tim Williams flew over the North Pole Wednesday. It was a cloudy day at 90 degrees North, as seen from the ER-2 cockpit. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

NASA pilot Tim Williams took this picture over the pole, as he was turning to head south . (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

The view of Alaska from the cockpit, as Tim Williams returns from the North Pole. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

The view of Alaska from the cockpit, as the ER-2 returns to Fairbanks. (Credit: Tim Williams/NASA)

After flying to 60,000 feet above the North Pole and back, NASA pilot Tim Williams talks with the ER-2 crew about what happens to flight instruments when you reach 90 degrees north. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

After flying to the North Pole and back, NASA pilot Tim Williams talks with the ER-2 crew about what happens to flight instruments when you reach 90 degrees north. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

NASA in Alaska 2014: MABEL and the ER-2 Take Flight

July 17th, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer
NASA's ER-2 sits at the end of the runway, ready for takeoff. (Credit: Doug Morton/NASA)

NASA’s ER-2 readies for takeoff. (Credit: Doug Morton/NASA)

I didn’t know a hybrid sedan could take a corner that fast. We were sitting in the car, adjacent to the runway where NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude aircraft was about to land. Tim Williams – an ER-2 pilot who will fly later this campaign – was driving, poised to speed down the runway after the plane, in case his fellow pilot needed help avoiding obstacles and gauging conditions.

And as soon as the sleek ER-2 came into view and descended over the runway, we were off. Williams hit the gas (battery?) on the hybrid and swung onto the runway, sending me and my video camera flailing against the passenger-side door as the aircraft buzzed overhead. We raced down the runway, chasing after the plane as it landed, balanced on its two wheels.

ER-2 pilot Tim Williams watches for the plane to land. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

ER-2 pilot Tim Williams watches for the plane to land. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

On board the ER-2 is MABEL – the Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar – a laser altimeter that is gathering data for the ICESat-2 mission. Wednesday’s flight was the first science flight of MABEL’s summer campaign to measure summer sea ice, land ice and more in Alaska.

The day started with a crew and weather briefing at 7 a.m., where pilots Denis Steele and Williams reviewed weather conditions and possible routes with ER-2 Mission Manager Tim Moes, NASA Goddard scientists Thorsten Markus and Kelly Brunt, weather forecasters and others.

With cloudy conditions on the way to the North Pole – covering the dynamic melting edge of the sea ice the campaign hopes to document – the team decided to head southeast out of Fairbanks. That route heads down to the Alaska Peninsula to survey volcanoes, then heads east over glaciers and high-elevation ice fields in south central to southeastern Alaska.

The ER-2, with MABEL on board, flew over volcanoes and glaciers in south central and southeastern Alaska.

The ER-2, with MABEL on board, flew over volcanoes and glaciers in south central and southeastern Alaska. (http://airbornescience.nasa.gov/tracker/)

With the flight route set, scientists made final checks of the instruments and Steele put on a pressurized suit – necessary for flying at 65,000 feet. He has to “pre-breathe” pure oxygen for an hour before flight, to raise his blood oxygen level.

 

ER-2 pilot Denis Steele puts on a pressurized suit before the flight, which will take him to 65,000 feet. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

Ryan Ragsdale, engineering technician, helps ER-2 pilot Denis Steele put on a pressurized suit before the flight, which will take him to 65,000 feet. (Credit: Valerie Casasanto/NASA)

Meanwhile, the plane was slowly towed out of the hangar onto the runway at Fort Wainwright and fueled up. The ER-2 crew and Williams went through the preflight checklist, which would be difficult for Steele as the pressurized suit has big gloves and limited dexterity.

ER-2s Denis Steele, in the cockpit, and Tim Williams, checking notes, get ready for the day's flight. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

ER-2s Denis Steele, in the cockpit, and Tim Williams, checking notes, get ready for the day’s flight. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

After Steele got in and started the engines, he taxied to the end of the runway accompanied by a maintenance van and a chase car: the van so that the crew could grab the bright orange stabilizing wheels, which fall off during takeoff, and the chase car driven by Williams, who supports Steele as necessary.

The ER-2 takes off amazingly fast. One moment it’s at the end of the runway, the next, the roar of the engine sounds. Then, all of a sudden, the aircraft’s in the air, climbing fast to the clouds. The plane disappeared into the clouds before the sound faded, and then the team went back to check the instruments’ vital signs, transmitted from flight.

A view of the Bagley Ice Field from 65,000 feet. (Credit: Denis Steele/NASA)

A view of Alaska’s Bagley Ice Field from 65,000 feet. (Credit: Denis Steele/NASA)

Just under seven hours later, after flying over a number of key glacier and volcano points north of the Gulf of Alaska, Steele landed the plane. The crew reattached the bright orange stabilizing wheels, and towed him back to the hangar, where scientists were eager to download and view the data.

Steele reported on highlights of the flight – what was cloudy, what was clear – and Moes ended with a reminder of the next early morning meeting to review weather conditions and determine whether the ER-2 would fly another route over Alaska today.

 

NASA in Alaska 2014: MABEL readied to snap photos from above

July 15th, 2014 by Kate Ramsayer

Clouds blanketed much of MABEL’s potential flight routes over the Alaskan Arctic or southern glaciers on Monday, so the ER-2 aircraft stayed in the hangar at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But the MABEL team was busy. They took advantage of a day on the ground by improving the instrument’s new camera. The goal is to take more images like the one below, to help scientists interpret the data from the airborne lidar instrument.

As the ER-2 aircraft traveled from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, the camera on MABEL took this shot of wind turbines near Bakersfield, California. (Credit: NASA)

As the ER-2 aircraft traveled from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, the camera on MABEL took this shot of wind turbines near Bakersfield, California. (Credit: NASA)

It’s the first week of the summer 2014 campaign for MABEL, or the Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar, the ICESat-2 satellite’s airborne test instrument. MABEL measures the height of Earth below using lasers and photon-counting devices. This year, the team is using a new camera system to take snapshots of the land, ice and water in parallel with MABEL’s measurements.

The MABEL instrument is nestled snug in the nose cone of the high-altitude ER-2, which has a circular window in the base where the laser and the camera view the ground. To get access to MABEL and the camera, the crew propped up the nose and wheeled it away from the aircraft.

The ER-2 crew rolls the aircraft's nose -- containing MABEL -- away from its body, so engineers could work on the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer)

The ER-2 crew rolls the aircraft’s nose — containing MABEL — away from its body, so engineers could work on the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

The team then carefully slid the instrument out onto a cart, so that MABEL’s on-site engineer and programmer – Eugenia DeMarco and Dan Reed – could work on the camera and ensure the connections were sound.

MABEL engineer Eugenia DeMarco and programmer Dan Reed work on improving the new camera system for the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

MABEL engineer Eugenia DeMarco and programmer Dan Reed work on improving the new camera system for the instrument. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

When the camera was set to document the terrain from 65,000 feet, the team slid MABEL back to its spot and wheeled the aircraft’s nose back to the rest of its body. They connected the instrument to the plane’s electronics, sealed the plane back up, and are ready to go whenever the weather cooperates.

Luis Rios, with NASA's ER-2 crew, checks the connections between the MABEL instrument and the aircraft. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

Luis Rios, with NASA’s ER-2 crew, checks the connections between the MABEL instrument and the aircraft. (Credit: Kate Ramsayer/NASA)

 

Notes from the Field