Boulder Scientists Flying in Rough Conditions to Improve Aviation Forecasting

March 2, 2019
Ice buildup on the National Research Council of Canada's Convair 580, which is being used by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in an ongoing study that involves flying through adverse atmospheric conditions in order to gather data that will boost modeling and forecasting in support of greater aviation safety.

As much of the country is still enduring wintry conditions, scientists involved in a Boulder-based field campaign are flying through some of the worst of it, collecting data aimed at improving forecasts and weather models for those working in aviation.

Sleet, freezing rain and freezing drizzle are ideal conditions for a research program focused on collecting in-flight data in some of the most treacherous North American icing conditions. And scientists from Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research, along with other partners, are currently collecting in-flight data in those circumstances in a project led by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The project is under the auspices of the FAA’s Aviation Weather Research Program, which sponsors research that will help minimize the impact of weather on the National Airspace System, including turbulence, ceiling and visibility, thunderstorms — as well as aircraft icing.

Scientists participating in the In-Cloud Icing and Large-Drop Experiment — known as ICICLE — have been going airborne through bad winter weather conditions since Jan. 28, utilizing the National Research Council of Canada’s Convair 580, a twin-engine research aircraft, according to a news release.

Based for now in Rockford, Ill., the scientists and Convair crew are flying over Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and other nearby states for another week in pursuit of icy weather conditions, with data collection to conclude March 8.

Scott Landolt, an NCAR scientist and co-lead principal investigator for the field campaign, has been in Rockford, directing efforts from the ground, and will be making his one flight on the research aircraft Saturday, over southwestern Michigan. In all, he estimated the plane will have made up to 30 trips aloft before this campaign wraps.

“One of our goals is to improve our understanding of the processes that create these icing conditions,” Landolt said.“Another thing will be to help improve the models we use to predict these type of conditions. Those are our primary focuses.”

Julie Haggerty, leader of the in-flight icing program at NCAR and co-lead principal investigator for ICICLE, was traveling on Friday, but in an email addressed the subject of flying deliberately in conditions most would prefer to avoid.

“Safety is always our first priority, but as a research aircraft, we explore icing conditions that a commercial airliner would avoid,” Haggerty said.

“During some of the flights for this project, significant amounts of ice have accumulated on various parts of the aircraft. The flight crew and scientists are cognizant of the limits of this aircraft to tolerate the ice, and are constantly monitoring conditions in flight.”

Haggerty said scientists expect to come away with a data set that characterizes meteorological conditions associated with supercooled large cloud droplets, which are especially hazardous to aircraft operations.

“Data processing is complex and takes time, so it will be several months before a full analysis can be undertaken,” she said, with results likely to be published over the next one to two years.

Landolt said the last time a field campaign was tackled with a similar focus was in the mid-1990s.

“So it has been like 20 years or more since we have actually attempted something like this, although in that time we have made big advances in our weather modeling and forecasting, as well as remote sensing applications,” Landolt said.

“This field campaign is unique, in that we are finally collecting data sets to verify the weather models and the icing products we have been developing utilizing the aircraft probes to measure cloud droplet and precipitation particle sizes as well as aerosols.”

Ben Bernstein, a consultant with Longmont’s Leading Edge Atmospherics, is a critical part of the team, according to a news release, serving as science lead for the team and primary operations director, while providing expertise in identifying and sampling conditions that cause ice buildup.

ICICLE’s additional collaborators include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as groups in England, France and Germany.

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan