Guiding Aircraft to Targeted Storms

by Frank Flocke (NCAR/ACD)

While the planes are in the air they are constantly updated about the weather and storm situation from the ground and guided to the target area.

Daily planning meetings take place in order to decide where flights will take place – generally over one of the three ground-based research locations in Colorado, Oklahoma, or Alabama. Photo by Alison Rockwell (NCAR/EOL)

Before take-off a nominal flight plan is filed, which is tailored for the type of storm sampling we will most likely do that day, in the general area where the models have predicted storms to occur.

The high-resolution weather models we use for our forecasting are excellent tools and very good at their job, but forecasting the exact location of a storm 12 to 24 hours ahead of time is very difficult.

If storms are forecast for on of our three target areas in NE Colorado, SW Oklahoma and N Texas, and in N Alabama (see DC-3 outreach website for more info on these areas), the lead science team decides to send the aircraft to the area. Take-off can occur before storms have developed, because transit times from our base in Salina, KS are in the 1-1.5 hour range.

DC3 Operations Center, looking at live data streams while also monitoring weather conditions to guide the aircraft for optimal data collection. Photo by Alison Rockwell (NCAR/EOL)

Several people then set up shop in our Salina Operations Center. Two of the lead scientists direct operations while a team of Now-Casters constantly analyze data coming in from the ground facilities in the target area and feed it to the lead scientists. This data includes 3-D maps of lightning as well as research grade high-resolution radar, allowing precise mapping of convective activity to be sampled. There are also mobile units deployed on the ground, collecting radar data, launching radiosondes, etc.

There is one dedicated communications person for each aircraft, using instant messaging (“chat”) software to relay the latest information to the mission scientist on board each aircraft. I have been doing this job for the NCAR GV. The communications person also plots and translates new flight coordinates and relays them up to the aircraft for the pilots to use. We are aided by one of the navigators from the NASA DC-8 with this job. The GV also has a mission coordinator on board who communicates directly with the pilots on the GV ensuring the safety of the aircraft and guides the aircraft with the on-board weather radar and lightning sensors. The DC-8 also has a mission coordinator as well as a navigator on board. The pilots communicate with Air Traffic Control and try to make the flight plan work as best as possible. Finally, one of the EOL mission managers is also communicating from the ground with the mission coordinator on board the aircraft, keeping an eye on the larger scale, approach and departure corridors around major airports, larger scale storm development, etc.

The kind of flying we do is not something that Air Traffic Control normally deals with. The pilots and mission manager folks have been visiting with ATC supervisors before the experiment started and briefed them on our plans but it’s often still a challenge for ATC to “fit” us in between and along with the commercial air traffic routes. This is especially difficult when there is weather around, which is always true when we go out…

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