Monday, July 31, 2017

Custom plane would call Pasco home, fly the world for research

Plans are being made to base a new aircraft at Pasco that will fly the world, collecting data on the Earth’s atmosphere.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland is currently responsible for a Gulfstream-1 twin turboprop based in Pasco.

It’s a flying laboratory, packed with scientific equipment and outfitted with external probes for analyzing moisture and particles in the air.

“The ‘G-1’ has been a workhorse,” said Greg Koller, spokesman for PNNL.

But it was built in 1961 and may be on its last wings.

Gulfstream stopped supporting the mechanical structure of the plane in 2006. It has become difficult to get certified repair shops to work on certain systems that will need to be overhauled on specific schedules, Koller said.

Some costly repairs loom, key parts are unavailable and new pilots cannot be certified for the aging plane.

It’s unlikely the plane will fly beyond 2020.

The Department of Energy has agreed that there is a need for a new research aircraft and is evaluating alternatives, Koller said.

A new plane could be purchased at a cost of up to $16 million, or DOE could pursue a lease agreement. Funds would need to be included in the fiscal 2019 federal budget.

PNNL is expecting that a new plane would be bigger than the G-1, which now barely fits inside its Pasco hangar.

The Port of Pasco already is making plans.

The Washington State Community Economic Revitalization Board announced last week that it would provide a $1.7 million loan and a $300,000 grant to the Port of Pasco for a new building at the Tri-Cities Airport Business Center.

The port would invest the remaining money for the $2.6 million project, which is contingent on federal funding for the new airplane being approved.

The port would lease the building to PNNL. A 17,727-square-foot pre-engineered metal building frame with metal sheeting and a metal roof is proposed.

“The Port of Pasco has long been a great partner with PNNL and the ARM Aerial Research Facility, and we appreciate they are anticipating and preparing for our future needs,” Koller said.

The Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility is a DOE “user facility” that includes the ARM Aerial Research Facility, which PNNL manages and operates as part of the larger ARM program to support airborne research. The facility solicits research projects from around the world and then supports them.

The new Pasco building is proposed to be large enough to house not only the proposed new aircraft, but also $10 million worth of ARM’s other aerial research equipment.

Equipment includes the $800,000 ArcticShark, a custom-built drone with a 22-foot wingspan that PNNL took delivery of in March. PNNL prefers the term “unmanned aerial vehicle.”

The ArcticShark will be used to gather atmospheric data in the Arctic to aid in global temperature research.

Other equipment that could be based at the new building includes a vast array of instrumentation, which is used to measure aerosol, cloud and trace gas properties in the air, meteorological parameters and infrared energy.

About 15 staff members work on the ARM Aerial Research Facility in Richland, including pilots, and some staff may move to the proposed Pasco building.

PNNL has operated the G-1 since it was acquired for research in the late ’80s.

It can collect measurements at altitudes approaching 25,000 feet and can operate at a wide range of air speeds. It can fly relatively slowly when collecting samples but also can be rapidly flown to sites around the world.

In 2013 it was flown over wildfires in the West to collect soot-like particles that absorb sunlight and release heat. The data is helping researchers understand the effect aerosols have on climate change and what the Earth’s climate may look like in 50 to 100 years.

Other flights in recent years have collected data over the Amazon River in Brazil and the Azores of Portugal. The G-1 spent three months in Alaska, flying at 500 feet over the Alaska tundra.

With space at a premium after equipment is loaded, it has seats for just four researchers aboard to monitor instrument performance and watch the data accumulate in real time.

After the plane returns, data is downloaded and synchronized with location information from a global positioning system and video collected from cameras facing forward and downward.

Scientists around the globe track the research campaigns and access the data.

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