NASA Operation IceBridge - What It Takes To Execute a Major NASA Airborne Science Campaign

This extended feature video, from the flight operations perspective, follows the Operation IceBridge team from NASA's Armstrong Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California, to Punta Arenas, Chile during the Fall 2014 Antarctic campaign. It describes the many facets that go into coordinating a major airborne science mission like IceBridge, and highlights the unique capabilities of the NASA DC-8, a former passenger plane that has been heavily modified to carry state-of-the-art instrumentation for Earth science research. The DC-8 is one of several research aircraft operated by the NASA Airborne Science Program to study the Earth system.


Executing a Major International Airborne Science Campaign


TRT 16:30

Narrator: NASA researchers spend weeks, even months at a time in remote locations around the world collecting critical data about Earth's environment.


Many studies are done from the air using NASA's fleet of research aircraft.

Narrator: One such mission is Operation IceBridge, a multi-year study of polar ice conducted by the NASA Airborne Science Program.

IceBridge sends NASA's P-3 flying laboratory to Greenland and Alaska in the Spring to study changing ice conditions in the Arctic.

A second aircraft, the NASA DC-8, flies from Punta Arenas, in southern Chile in the fall, to measure land and sea ice over Antarctica.

It takes months of planning to execute a major international mission like IceBridge.

Diplomatic clearances, configuring the aircraft with scientific instruments, and finding facilities that can support the people and the airplane itself are just some of the preparations needed for IceBridge to meet its mission requirements and goals.

Frank Cutler: To deploy to someplace like Chile, we plan a good six months before the mission to bring everything together so that once we arrive here, we're ready to execute missions on a daily basis.

Walter Klein: Typically a mission director, a mission manager, a program manager, we get called different names, we'll do the site surveys for the location, we're liasoning with the government, of the, the host government, to the host airport, that's the real legwork that's done prior, is coming out and making sure that they can house and feed us and take care of the people, the hotels. You name it, there's a lot of little tiny details that can't be overstated.

Bill Brockett: The biggest logistical challenge for the project as a whole is to set up all of the lab space and the facilities so that the scientists can process their data and make their decisions about which project.

Frank Cutler: Yeah, logistics is huge for something like this because we have to make sure we can all support the people in the field as well as the aircraft. So we think a lot about aircraft spares, and then little details about the support equipment for the airplane.

Matthew Berry: Usually on every deployment we're going somewhere, there's at least a group that goes out and scopes it out. A lot of it's done while we're working other missions. And they will talk with the airfield, set up and tell them what we're going to be doing. And then as they're communicating back with us with capabilities the airfield has to support us, that way we know what to ship.

Narrator: For a deployment more than 6,000 miles away in the southern hemisphere, the maintenance crew needs to carry an extensive payload to maintain the DC-8 on site, and keep the mission on schedule.

Mechanic: Yeah, we can put them right on the side there.

Narrator: More than thirteen thousand pounds of cargo are packed on the DC-8. Everything from spare tires, parts and tools, to basic comforts of home for the near daily 11-hour research flights over Antarctica.

Bill Brockett: On a deployment like this we bring the equipment with us. And we also ship a lot of other things by sea in a big container so that we can keep the airplane moving. It'll come back from a mission. If there's anything wrong that needs to be repaired before the next flight, we have the maintenance crew to support it during the night and get it ready for a mission the following day.

(Engine starts)

Narrator: The DC-8 flight operations team works around the clock to support Operation IceBridge, providing ground support for take-offs and landings, operating the plane on research flights, and making sure sensitive science instruments stay powered up and heated overnight.

The airfield is staffed 24 hours a day.

Frank Cutler: We have a make-up of about twenty-eight people supporting the flight operations down here. And that consists of the pilots, flight engineers, navigators, mission directors, and then the maintenance crew that's split between mechanics and avionics technicians.

Narrator: The maintenance team often works on tight deadlines to prepare the aircraft for its next deployment.

Just ten days after removing one set of science instruments from a previous mission, the DC-8 is reconfigured for IceBridge.

In three weeks time, the plane is transformed into a working science laboratory, with a suite of radar and laser instruments and cameras installed throughout the cabin, cargo pit and fuselage.

Frank Cutler: Yeah, the unique thing about the DC-8 is that it was modified to accept, at this point, we've got about one-hundred different instruments that have been integrated into this airframe.

And so part of the modifications that were done early on was to make the airplane as versatile as possible.

So if you were to look through the airframe you'd see cut-outs in both the bottom of the aircraft and the upper side of the aircraft.

And a number of the windows were modified to carry structural loads of instruments being installed as well.

So we can look in pretty much every direction there is outside this airplane as we're traveling through the sky.

Once the science instruments are installed, the flight operations team conducts a series of ground checks and instrument test flights over the California desert to make sure the DC-8 is mission ready.

Experimenter: Looks like maybe it's level now?

Mission Director: Right, looks like it's wings level and we're on course.

Michael Studinger: So the reason why we picked these sites over the desert in California is because they have these dry lakebeds there. And they're a very flat area that's ideally suited for our purpose.

So we can put a GPS receiver on a car and kind of drive around these flat lakebeds, measure them. And then a few days later fly over the same area with the DC-8 and take measurements from the air, compare the two measurements and use the data from the ground to calibrate and validate the airborne measurements.

Narrator: While the aircraft is prepared for the trip to Chile, the science and flight operations teams are required to undergo specialized safety training, regardless of if they've flown on the DC-8 in the past.

Philip Wellner: Well, for the DC-8, everybody who flies has to go through, basically, a safety briefing. We go into a little bit more detail because we do more things on our airplanes than commercial airliners do.

From our pilots, they go through survival training, water and land, and depending on where they're going, some of them have been through Arctic.

All of our crew members, they all have to go through altitude chamber, water survival, land survival. And what we do here is just build on that and then try to bring anybody else who hasn't had any formal training up to speed so they at least have a working knowledge of the kind of conditions that can happen if something was to go wrong with the aircraft.

Narrator: Safety equipment tailored for IceBridge is also packed on the DC-8.

Philip Wellner: Overhead compartments we've got twenty man life rafts, there's four of those onboard the aircraft.

We have two, what we call global survival kits, which has different survival items inside of there.

For this particular deployment, we also have anti-exposure suits, which, if they were to go into the water, we'd have enough for everybody onboard the aircraft for that.

Narrator: Once the aircraft and passengers are cleared to fly, it's time to pack up for the long transit flight from Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, to the southern tip of Chile.


(Aircraft engine revs)


Narrator: The exhausted team gets an opportunity to rest on the overnight journey to Santiago, where a second flight crew is on standby to complete the journey to Punta Arenas.

Frank Cutler: To get to this part of the globe, it's about fourteen hours of flying.

We had pre-deployed a crew to Santiago to join the flight at that point, so that the crew that flew all night could then step out of the cockpit and rest. And that allowed us to continue that next day down to Punta Arenas, Chile without having to stop overnight.



Narrator: It's a cold and windy welcome at the Punta Arenas airport, the mission base for Operation IceBridge. The scientists and flight crew will call this place home until the end of November.

Michael Studinger: We are setting up base stations here at the airport that record the GPS data for all the instruments.

We are talking to the people in the weather office, at the tower, the air traffic controllers, and that typically takes about a day of getting everybody settled in here and preparing everything for the first science flight.

Narrator: With two complete flight crews available, science flights are planned on consecutive days to collect as much data as possible over Antarctica.

Michael Studinger: On a typical Punta Arenas deployment we have about 300 flight hours. And if we fly as much as we can, which we typically do, we kind of travel the distance in Antarctica that's equivalent to three or four times around the equator.

Pilot: I think this is a glacier we're crossing.

Narrator: Flight tracks are carefully designed by the IceBridge science team months in advance.

Survey lines need to be precise. Not only to make repeat measurements in exact locations, but also to ensure the plane keeps a safe distance from Specially Protected Areas and animal habitats.

A sophisticated guidance system on the DC-8 helps the flight crew keep the plane on track, and navigate around more than seventeen-hundred known wildlife locations on the Antarctic continent.

Frank Cutler: Some of the flights are hand flown using moving map displays that have a flight track depicted on them.

Others are guided by what's called the ATM instrument, where it actually puts out a signal that we feed into the aircraft navigation system, where it guides the airplane laterally.

John Sonntag: So the ATM stands for Airborne Topographic Mapper.

We designed a supplemental system to the ATM. Some people call it the ATM Navigator.

What it does is it couples into the aircraft's own autopilot and it helps it steer the aircraft as accurate as we need it to be.

We can generally steer the airplane well within a hundred feet, and often within 20 feet of where we want it to be.

And that means that if you imagine a line that represents our desired track, more than half the time that line will lie within the cabin of the aircraft.

Narrator: Antarctica's harsh and often unpredictable weather determines when and where the IceBridge team will fly each day.

Navigator: I've got rising terrain, twelve o'clock, seven miles."

Pilot: Tallyho.

Pilot: Tallyho and I'm going to start climbing here.

Narrator: Pilots need perfect visibility of the terrain for safety.

Pilot: We'll clear it.

Pilot: We'll clear it, and it does get steeper as we get closer to it, so we can pitch up a little bit.

Several science instruments need a clear line of sight between the aircraft and the ground to collect proper measurements.

John Sonntag: Meteorology is obviously a very big deal with IceBridge. It essential governs everything that we do on any given day.

We have to fly down low and near the terrain in order for our instruments to work as they're optimally designed to work.

So it means we need clear skies below the altitude at which we're operating in order to do this kind of work.

We know from experience which parts of Antarctica are likely to have good weather and which parts are not.

So we design the missions so that each of the missions has a maximum chance of success based on the likely weather scenarios.

Michael Studinger: We come up with with about twice as many mission plans as we can possibly fly in the field.

That's simply so that we have enough target areas to choose from that have good weather while we are here in the field.

And then we prioritize these plans.

John Sonntag: We have to spend a very large amount of our time while we're in the field trying to sort of ascertain what the weather is going to do.

It's a bit like reading tea leaves. It's a very inexact science.

We depend entirely on what the meteorologists tell us through computer models.

We talk a lot to the meteorologists here at the airport. They're terrific. They give us a lot of help.

Narrator: The Chilean hosts provide everything from weather expertise, to daily flight lunches for the IceBridge team.

Airport firefighters and emergency responders are also prepared to help in case anything goes wrong with the aircraft.

Frank Cutler: So we don't use retread tires.

Jhony Zavaleta: (translates in Spanish)

Firefighter: (responds in Spanish)

Narrator: The DC-8 is not your typical airplane.

Structural enhancements, new engines, and cutting edge data systems make the aircraft a versatile, long-endurance platform for Earth science research.

Frank Cutler: The DC-8 is uniquely capable for this kind of operation, mainly because of its long legs. It can fly for about fourteen hours on a full fuel load.

Michael Studinger: We have to pretty much have to commute everyday to Antarctica and commute back.

And then we need, also, the capability of collect several hours of data.

Typically on every flight we collect several terabytes of data all together. So we have eight different science instruments on the aircraft.

And in total it's a very complex set of measurements that we take over ice sheets.

And doing it all at the same time in the same location from one airplane, it's a really a tremendous resource.

Frank Cutler: It is amazing that a large airplane that was designed originally to be an airliner could be so diverse.

But by it's design it meets a lot of the requirements NASA had set for the type of science studies they wanted to execute with an airplane to support.

This particular airplane was built in 1969. But many of the systems have been upgraded over the years to keep up with current technology.

For instance, the airplane has a satellite communication system on it, which something like that didn't even exist when it was originally built.

So what's nice about that is we can move data real-time during the flights off the airplane to people anywhere in the world via the satellite system, and then the Internet.

And they can send us information real-time as well.

We can X-Chat. It's like texting back and forth to each other.

We can send photographs. We can send technical data.

You don't have to actually be on the flight to participate.

Bill Brockett: My view of this airplane is that it's the ideal airplane for the kind of mission we use it for, because it's built very strong.

And in the old days when these were being designed and built, the airplanes were overbuilt to be on the safe side.

We have a nickname for it. It's the DC-8, and the DC stands for Douglas Cable Car.

Because unlike the modern airplanes that use electronics and hydraulics to control the airplane in flight, this airplane is controlled with steel cables.

So we do hurricane research. We fly through hurricanes.

And we do a lot of different types of scientific research.

And the airplane can take a lot of damage that would cripple other more modern airplanes and this airplane still flies fine.

It's like an old truck. It's solid, and almost indestructible.

Narrator: A wall of stickers at the Mission Director's console tells the story of the many missions the DC-8 has flown since it went into NASA service in 1987.

This aircraft and many others operated by the NASA Airborne Science Program fly thousands of hours every year, all over the world to support a variety of Earth science research missions.

It takes careful coordination and detailed planning behind the scenes to make these missions possible, and to gain a better understanding of how our planet is changing.

Music fades