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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. (

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)


Pine Island Glacier 2011: Epilogue

January 18th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

Christchurch (New Zealand), 18 January — This will be my last entry in this season’s blog. I had hoped to tell a different tale the past two monthsone of successful science being done in a harsh, remote place by hardy individuals dedicated to getting information that had direct relevance to your lives and the lives of others you know and will never know. But the field season unfolded in a vastly different way. I have prepared an outbrief for the National Science Foundation that speaks to the good and the bad, what went right and what went wrong, and how to use what was learned this season to improve our chances for success next season. That document is the official record and won’t be shared here, yet it contains no surprises from what you have read.

For this blog, I want to be more reflective and to emphasize those more personal aspects of Antarctic field work. It takes a lot of people working together to undertake a project as ambitious and as challenging as this one. This season, a lot of us involved in various aspects of this enterprise came together and grew to know each other a lot better. We did not always see things the same way, but I think just about everyone came away with a greater appreciation for what the project is all about and what talents each player has contributed to the greater enterprise. This was most apparent at PIG Main Camp where the great distance from McMurdo provided a clarity of purpose that often gets muddled in McMurdo. Following our limited success in the final days, I was impressed with how the Main Camp staff shared their congratulations with us. That success made their efforts at camp worthwhile. Our assistance in many of their camp chores showed them that we appreciated their efforts. That is the magic of a deep field camp. Even the Twin Otter pilots, who only dropped in for two days, felt good because we accomplished some objectives together.

I regret that the helicopters never came. I have little doubt the same camp magic would have occurred there, too. I question whether managers of the individual U.S. Antarctic Program components, who spend no time in the deep field, really understand how the deep field camps actually operate. There is a bonding motivated by the Antarctic environment that is much stronger in the deep field than in the more “civilized” McMurdo. Even large, multi-project camps can sometimes be absent of this mystic, but PIG is not of that ilk. You do not resent the person who has helped you set your tent, who you have helped shovel out a fuel bladder, who has watched you to make sure your nose is not frostbitten, and whose sled you have helped pull. The shared experiences bring people together and make for one. Every one of the camp staff expressed their hope to be chosen to come back next season.

As will we. We will succeed. Despite the limited scientific accomplishments this season, we are better positioned (with all the camp material, most of the scientific equipment and scads of fuel already at PIG Main Camp to spend the frigid winter) and logistically wiser to design a better field effort for 2012-13. We have to—it will be our last chance for this project.  We’ll use satellite imagery to give us an early look next October. In November, Twin Otters will be used to assess the surface character of the ice shelf and to deliver a skeleton crew allowing us access to the wintered cargo, the fuel and to start on-site weather observations. By December, before the main camp even gets set up, the drilling team will arrive and will be transferred to the ice shelf with the drilling equipment by those same Twin Otters. Building the Main Camp and transferring the helos out will come later, much later if need be. Fewer Herc flights, earlier traverses and more Twin Otter time is a much more palatable recipe.

It saddens me to think that even today we should be working out of PIG Main Camp, making day trips to collect radar and seismic information on the shape of the ocean cavity beneath the ice shelf. Instead, our field team has disbanded. We flew to Christchurch together on Monday, but now we are scattering across the globe on various commercial airline flights. I’ve received word that the second traverse has arrived at PIG and this week there should be the final two flights pulling out the camp staff after they have put all the wintering cargo up on high snow berms. A recent satellite image taken last week shows the camp and the AWS webcam is still keeping watch from the ground. It looks like another beautiful day there.

I’m not exactly sure how to end this blog. I hoped you’ve enjoyed the story. I suppose I could just say that we now reenter the planning phase. There is yet more pressure on us now because we have one more shot to get it right. I think we will, but as always, the big unknown is what Antarctica has in store for us next time.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: Done in a Flash

January 12th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 12 January — The optimists following this blog would have likely assumed that the absence of new postings this past week meant that we were finally in the field and that the work was finally underway. Those optimists would be half-right; we were at the PIG Main Camp this past week, but the work was not getting done. There is so much that transpired since my last blog post concerning the possible flight deploying us to PIG Main Camp that to avoid a very long story, I will start with the ending and fill in the middle bits as time permits in subsequent entries, ending with an epilogue.

The helicopters never arrived, we were hammered by strong winds, a small subset of us installed some scientific equipment by Twin Otter to monitor the ice shelf, and we were ordered home much, much too early. The flight from McMurdo to Christchurch, NZ leaves early tomorrow morning. I’m manifested on it, have dragged by bags and had them taken from me, but because of some medivacs expected to be on the plane (burn victims from a Korean fishing vessel nearby), some of us may get bumped off the flight. I’ve been in McMurdo less than 24 hours. We arrived by taking a Twin Otter from PIG to Byrd Station yesterday, then waiting two hours and catching a Herc back to McMurdo. Jeez, connections like that just don’t happen in Antarctica (it was not planned).

The Twin Otters were at PIG because I practically begged NSF to provide me with some resources to execute at least part of our science program. A decision had been made by NSF the day we left McMurdo that if the helos were not able to be flown to PIG by Saturday, January 7, this year’s field work would be cancelled. I was never told this directly by NSF (I’m still frosted about that), and the messenger couldn’t find me, so he told others in my group (also not the best approach—McMurdo isn’t that big that anyone can’t be found—and it was known when I would be heading for the skiway).

So we actually did make it to PIG Main Camp on an early flight Tuesday, January 3. The weather there was beautiful—a slight breeze and brilliant sunshine. The camp workers provided a very nice reception; they were happy to have some working scientists on hand. The carpenters and camp staff had done an excellent job putting a camp together quickly and were still working on the last couple of buildings. The skiway was wonderful, allowing us to glide smoothly to a graceful stop just by the fuel pit. The combination of staff, carps and scientists added to a camp population of 35—too much for the small galley to accommodate at one time, so we planned to eat in shifts. We were given a quick orientation of the do’s and don’ts, the where’s and the who’s. Then we hustled off to set up tents, while the good weather held.

The weather continued to hold for another day, but the helos didn’t come. The weather forecasts were dismal at both McMurdo and PIG, but in actuality, the weather remained good at both places. This was frustrating, especially when the weather the next day started to deteriorate. We worked through our cargo—some had not been seen for two years when we tested our equipment at Windless Bight—preparing for either helos or the Twin Otter to start moving us onto the ice shelf. Neither came. Weather worsened. And we were into our first storm warning. Camp prepared by putting many more flags out to help people find their way from the tent area to the stronger buildings. Most chose to ride out the storm in their tents. I built a pretty high snow wall. It was a noisy night with winds gusting to well over 40 knots, but no one had any hair-raising experiences. Lots of drifts built up and a few folks had to shovel them down once or twice during the night.

Better weather usually follows a storm like this, but it didn’t lead to any flights coming our way. When Friday arrived, the great powers that control everything in the US Antarctic Program notified me that they had to talk to me. The message was a reminder of the “drop-dead” date.

(Here, I’m going to have to stop temporarily. My flight to Christchurch is scheduled to arrive very early tomorrow and I need to be prepared for it. I’ll pick up the story in my next entryshouldn’t be too long a wait.)

Pine Island Glacier 2011: What A Drag

January 5th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 30 December — This post may read a little rushed because, well, I’m rushing today. The stakeholders meeting Wednesday afternoon resulted in an accelerated timeline and we have been “hot-footing” it ever since.

The “drag” in the title is for bag drag. It is a good thing. It means you are being checked-in, weighed and being given a boarding pass (yup, they use them here, too). It means you are about to go someplace other than the mess hall (for yet another meal). It means you have had to clean out your room (can you believe they have inspections to make sure you are not leaving your bad habits behind?) For us, it means we are going to PIG tomorrow.

This morning I called a meeting of our team to discuss what will happen once we get to PIG Main Camp and what will the sequence of cargo and people be once we start moving over to the Drill Camp. It was our last chance to meet in a comfortable format, all seated around the same table. Things will change radically tomorrow. The camp already has 19 people in it; 23 after the four new arrivals on today’s flight (#4). These are split roughly equally between camp staff and carpenters. We ten will drive the total to a bulging 33. There are two tents up. We will likely have to eat in two or three shifts.

Our work there will focus on finding our traversed cargo, combining it with what will be flown out with us tomorrow, and organizing the total into time-sequenced loads destined for the ice shelf. Monday (or more likely the next good-weather day), we are supposed to receive a Twin Otter from Byrd camp that will begin to move people and cargo to the Drill Camp. We will start with a few people, survival gear and shelter. The Otter will help us again the next day (we hope it will stay overnight, but its orders are not to get stuck at PIG) to continue to move to the Drill Camp. Ultimately we have over 30,000 pounds of stuff to move, so we will not be able to complete the move these two days.

Also on Monday, there will be two Herc flights to PIG (that’s right, TWO), each carrying a partially disassembled helicopter. Once they are reassembled (a two-day task), they will continue to move our stuff (we’re saving some of the most heavy and awkward pieces for them). I hope we can finish this off in one more day, but I’m fearful it will take two more, so it is very likely this moving will be interrupted by bad weather. Thus, we are trying to be careful to ensure that the right people are at the right place with the right pieces to be able to be productive even if the weather is not conducive to helo flying. Yet another puzzle. There have been many and it is the nature of field work.

This next phase will be a bit of a scramble. If we do it right, everyone will be pretty busy and we will be making progress all the time. That scrambling may make future blog entries more difficult. I am in the advance party going to the Drill Camp. Until the dust settles there with most of us arriving and the critical first tasks out of the way, there won’t be any posts, not even short ones, from me coming out from PIG. Again, it is just the nature of the work.

Notes from the Field