With few chances to observe an airborne science mission first hand, and perhaps even fewer opportunities these days to travel on a DC-8, I jumped at a recent invitation to fly on NASA’s venerable Palmdale-based research aircraft.
NASA’s DC-8 began life as a -62 variant and was delivered to Alitalia in May 1969 bfore later operating with Braniff. (all photos Guy Norris)
As it turned out, the flight was far more eventful than I could have imagined. Not only was 90% of it conducted at a mere 1,000-ft over California’s San Joaquin Valley, but the mission was curtailed after two hours following a pair of bird strikes which forced a precautionary return to Palmdale.
Although re-engined with CFM56-2s during its conversion to a DC-8-72, the aircraft retains a largely original 'classic' Douglas flight deck.
Flight engineer's panel - note the 'Engine Room' label (not original!)
The flight was part of the student airborne research program (SARP), which is designed to help foster a new generation of earth scientists by combining original research with hands-on experience. Managed through the National Suborbital Education and Research Center at the University of North Dakota, with funding and support from NASA's Airborne Science Program, the SARP included students representing 26 colleges and universities across the U.S. and nine foreign countries.
Air is drawn in from the outside through a modified overwing window and inducted into collection units.
Flying through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the east of Fresno.
Passing over the Sacramento River at 1,000ft.
Air samples, which were later sent to University California Irvine for analysis, were included in the project after science flights in 2008 detected surprisingly strong emissions, particularly of ethanol, from the large dairy operations in the San Joaquin Valley. As ethanol reactions in the atmosphere can lead to chemically produced ozone, the research could contribute to the institution of new air-quality regulations.
Air samples ready for analysis at UCI
The MODIS/ASTER Airborne Simulator (MASTER) multi-spectral sensor data (above) was used to help verify satellite information as well as to assess transpiration from crops. The data, using thermal and visible bands, will be compared with evapo-transpiration estimates provided daily from models to help determine exact water requirements and crop health levels.
Flaps down on base leg to Palmdale.
Missing paintwork and a tell-tale feather mark a bird impact on the horizotal stabilizer.
The appearance after a second bird strike of what seemed to be an impact hole in the leading edge close to the No.2 engine strut prompoted an early return to Palmdale.