Research News

Nation's Most Advanced Research Aircraft Completes First Science Mission

Groundbreaking studies could lead to safer air travel

The nation's most advanced research aircraft, called HIAPER--for High-Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research--recently completed its first science mission. A modified Gulfstream V jet, the aircraft can fly at higher altitudes for extended periods and can carry 5,600 pounds of sensing equipment, making it the premier plane for scientific discovery.

The experiment, known as terrain-induced rotor experiment, or T-REX, consisted of a series of 9-hour flights throughout one month. An international team of 60 researchers gathered data about treacherous whirlwind turbulence called atmospheric rotors and the waves of air associated with them. Very little is known about how rotors develop and the dangers they pose to commercial aircraft. 

The project includes scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Desert Research Institute and other institutions, and was supported by the National Science Foundation.  

Originating from the Jefferson County airport in Colorado, the team's flights followed California's central valley, crossing the Sierra Nevada range where rotors are most commonly found. Forming on the lee side of high, steep mountains beneath cresting waves of air, these systems are very turbulent and intermittent, making them difficult to study.  Three planes, flying at different altitudes, as well as ground-based instrumentation, gave the team a better view of the phenomenon. 

Even though project flights lasted only a month, researchers are already making discoveries that may help protect commercial aircraft flying over mountainous terrain.

-- Dena Headlee