Archives for category: flight planning

This week in Kiruna, Sweden was my first field trip and first time north of the Arctic Circle. This time of the year there is 24 hour daylight, a stark contrast to the vision I had of Santa Claus’ home – who knew that in Lapland you have to pack sunscreen! It all makes sense if you think about the reason for the field trip, the wetlands, and how as the temperature gets warmer methane is released.

On Monday afternoon I had my first flight, and not only was the science experience great but the view was spectacular!

Wetlands out of the window of my first science flight (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Wetlands out of the window of my first science flight (Photo: Ines Heimann)

We flew two different low East-West legs from Kiruna over the Finnish wetlands (most likely the more brownish areas, see photo). What I did not expect was such a bumpy ride: even with very low winds, 500 ft above ground means lots of little air holes and little bumps! Luckily, one of the science aims was to profile up to higher altitudes, to assess the local atmosphere’s vertical structure.

Inside the aircraft. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Inside the aircraft. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Seeing the measurements in real time while flying is definitely a wonderful experience! It took a while to get my first plots working, but afterwards, every little variation I spotted in methane was a highlight. The flight for me was therefore not as “dull” as the Mission Scientist 1 (an old hand at this) called it.

An interesting aspect of the flights was the discussions over the headphones deciding whether to continue the planned flight or to change altitude to get a better idea of concentrations or fluxes.

The flying on Monday was followed by yet another first-time experience: flight planning for Thursday – no mean feat! The office space in a hangar did help to imagine a plane journey!

Inside the hangar, where our office was based. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

Inside the hangar, where our office was based. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

It is only when I helped produce a plan that I realised how much work goes into a successful research flight and a successful measurement campaign. I learned that weather is probably the most important but also variable factor.

Considering the rain, wind and cloud forecast for Thursday, we prepared two different sortie plans, considering timings, distances and the altitudes for the measurements to ensure the fuel would bring us back to Kiruna.

Unfortunately Thursday arrived with a near constant cloud cover making flying at low altitudes impossible due to bad visibility. We tried our luck and found a gap south of Kiruna and managed to fly a quarter of our flight track at the desired altitude of 1000 ft under the clouds. Lucky me, who took an anti-sickness pill before take-off!

A cloudy day for flying over the wetlands. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

A cloudy day for flying over the wetlands. (Photo: Ines Heimann)

The rain arrived soon after the first leg and we ended up profiling up and down the atmosphere searching for different methane layers transported from other regions and sources. Analysis will show whether we got lucky!

In conclusion, this week was full of interesting and fascinating new experiences, and showed me how exciting science can be and how much we depend on our environment!

Ines Heimann (University of Cambridge)

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In preparation for our events at the Cambridge Science Festival next week, here are all the MAMM project podcasts from our time in the Arctic! You can click through to the original podcast page to listen. Enjoy!

(And if you are in Cambridge, then sign up for one of our events on Wed 19th March 2014, as there are still some tickets left: for 12-18 year olds and for 18+.)

Sam is recording a podcast with Dave in the car on a very rainy Sunday, on our way to collect samples in the birch woodland. (Photo "credit": Michelle Cain.)

Sam is recording a podcast with Dave in the car on a very rainy Sunday, on our way to collect samples in the birch woodland. (Photo “credit”: Michelle Cain.)

An Introduction to MAMM:
In this introductory episode, Jen and Sam give a quick overview of the MAMM project, and what their individual roles are during the upcoming campaign, as well as laying out some of their hopes and aspirations for what promises to be a very exciting expedition!

Putting the Modelling into MAMM:
Sam is joined by Michelle, from the University of Cambridge, fresh off a plane at Stockholm airport, en route to Kiruna. We catch up with her to get her take on the challenges ahead, and what it means to be one of the Ms in MAMM.

MAMM day 1:
This episode discusses some of the first preliminary measurements that have been made by the FAAM Atmospheric Research Aircraft (ARA) during the MAMM campaign, as well as why it was probably a good job that Sam flew commercial.

MAMM Day 2: Sitting up Front and the Kelvin Helmholtz instability:
Sam catches up with Jen and Grant about the latest results from day 2 of the MAMM flight campaign, with Grant giving added insight into life a as Mission Scientist #1 and the search for the Kelvin Helmholtz instability from the cockpit.

MAMM Day 3: Principal Investigators and Long Range Transport:
In this episode, Sam catches up with Professor John Pyle from the University of Cambridge, the PI (Principal Investigator) for the MAMM project, and finds out in a bit more detail about the principal aims of the flying phase of the campaign.

MAMM Day 4: Boxes over Sodankylä and the Sky Arrow:
Sam and Jen meet to discuss some of the results of the fourth (and final) day of the MAMM flying campaign in the Arctic.

Reflections on the August MAMM campaign:
Back in Manchester, Will chats with Sam and Jennifer who reflect on the recent flying in the Arctic for the MAMM project. Listen to find out whether luck was with them, or whether they made their own luck in August and what the outlook is for the September campaign where they will be flying even further North than the wetlands in the European Arctic.

MAMM September 2013 Intro:
Sam and Jen broadcast live from several thousand feet above sea level to bring you an introduction to the September flying missions of the MAMM campaign, talking about why they are returning to the Arctic circle, and about the importance of making in situ measurements of methane. Sartorial concerns are also addressed as the necessities of thermal underwear are discussed.

MAMM Operations: Fly direct with Directflight:
Doing research using the aircraft takes a lot more than just the scientists doing good science: the ground operations team plays a crucial role.

MAMM: Fingerprinting Methane:
James explains his role, from collecting bags of air on the aircraft in order to ‘fingerprint’ the different sources of methane, to driving around Scandinavia and making measurements from the ground.

MAMM Road Trip: Measuring in the Rain:
As James drives in the treacherous conditions, Dave talks to Sam about the importance of these measurements, how chambers are used this process, and why it is absolutely essential that they make them in conditions such as this, which are atypical of Lapland at this time of year.

MAMM Flying: Aircraft love:
This episode is all about the people who keep the FAAM BAe-146 atmospheric research aircraft, her core instruments and scientists in top condition.

MAMM: Close-up look at the wetlands:
This episode is all about the different “scales” of methane measurements made during MAMM.

MAMM September 2013 Wrap Up:
As the September flying campaign draws to an end, we reflect on what has been a rather successful project to date, and also talk about the next steps for MAMM.

The research aircraft flying over wetlands in Finland in July 2012.

The research aircraft flying low over wetlands in Finland in July 2012.

The ARA flying over Spitsbergen for MAMM in 2012.

Find out what it’s like to be a scientist of a research flight, like this one!

Regular readers will have a fair idea of the trials and tribulations of the MAMM field work team. Now, we’re going one step further by putting on a show for people to really find out what we get up to. 

The show is called “The Arctic science experience”, and will be put on twice at the Cambridge Science Festival on Wednesday 19th March. A full crew, including scientists, the pilot, cabin crew and the flight manager will be there, enacting a typical MAMM research flight over the Arctic wetlands. You’ll get to see a life-sized replica section of our aircraft, fitted with an instrument that measures methane. You’ll get to see what the scientists on the ground get up to, taking samples of what’s coming out of the bogs. Best of all, you’ll get to be part of the team, as one of the “mission scientists” who are consulted on decisions during the flight.

You can book (all tickets are free) for the 4pm showing (aimed at 12-18 year olds) here:

http://www.cam.ac.uk/science-festival/events-and-booking/when-scientists-fly-the-arctic-science-experience

or the 6pm showing (18+ as there will be wine available):

http://www.cam.ac.uk/science-festival/events-and-booking/out-of-this-world-the-arctic-science-experience

Be sure to book if you wish to attend, as it’s going to be a sell out! If you can’t make it, look out for tweets by @civiltalker, @jenniferbmuller, @samillingworth@camscience, @NERCscience, as we will be tweeting pics on the day. Hopefully, we will meet some of you in a few weeks!

Find out what it's like to be on board the research aircraft

Find out what it’s like to be on board the research aircraft

Sunday 22nd September.

It is good to not expect everything to go according to plan.  Last Sunday (22nd September), the plan had been to head up North and fly to Svalbard (~78 °N), land and refuel at Longyearbyen, and then sample and do more science in the Svalbard area, before heading back to Kiruna. But it was not meant to be exactly that way. The wind speed had picked up at Longyearbyen, above the threshold which would make it unsafe for the BAe-146 to take off from there. So the plans were changed in the morning, hours before the flight was supposed to take off, but then even these plans turned out not feasible either, and finally with some resolute decisions by the mission scientists John Pyle and Keith Bower, and with 1¾ hours delay, we left Kiruna. Instead of the two flights we were only going to have a single flight, and still achieve the key objective: sampling air near Svalbard that been transported there from Russia, i.e. sampling long-range transport of methane.

Svalbard in the distance, as the ARA flies off its west coast. (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

Svalbard in the distance, as the ARA flies off its west coast. (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

As we still needed to go as far north as Svalbard to measure these air masses advected into this part of the Arctic, and get back to Kiruna in one flight, we headed out North at high altitude (because flying low uses more fuel). Before reaching Bear Island, we descended down to lower level at 73 °N, and then surveyed different altitudes by “saw-toothing”. This basically is making the shape of the tooth on a saw, meaning going up and down vertically in the atmosphere; for us this was between 1000 feet and minimum safe altitude, whilst travelling horizontally northwards to Svalbard. Saw-tooths are useful when trying to find the altitude of a particular aerosol and pollutant layer in the atmosphere. The models had forecasted that we would find such a layer south of Svalbard, but the enhancements in methane concentrations we measured were on the smallish side.  Coming up west of Svalbard, we stayed low over the ocean, which was a little choppy, before turning around at 78 °N and heading back at high altitude to Kiruna.

We went up north to measure methane that had been transported there from further east, and we did indeed sample some of that (so, success!) but there was also a whole lot of cloud around on Sunday. And in the way the saying goes “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, I would say Sunday was a case of “If life gives you clouds, measure clouds”. Graeme Nott from FAAM ran the core cloud instruments on the flight (i.e. cloud physics measurements, such as e.g. cloud droplet or ice number, size and type) and at some point he had an interesting conversation with Mission 1 Keith Bower over the intercom, all about bullet rosette ice crystals, and out of focus imaged ice crystals which look like donuts on the display.  Always something new to learn!  We also flew through some very wispy, thin ice cloud which was not obvious by looking out of the window, and only Graeme could tell us whether we were in-cloud or out-of-cloud.

Broken up cloud streets - interesting, even to a chemist! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

Broken up cloud streets – interesting, even to a chemist! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller)

Although my research interests are atmospheric trace gases, such as methane, I couldn’t help to thoroughly enjoy this flight for the myriad of clouds we saw. Yes, sometimes you get what you think you don’t want, and you just have to go with the flow, enjoy and make the best of it. This is also what Stéphane Bauguitte from FAAM did, who creatively used the flight delay in the morning to make and distribute some tongue in cheek “Complimentary drinks vouchers”.  Yet with what we saw and measured, as well as the delicious Swedish cakes, courtesy of the flight deck, there was enough to keep us scientists sweet and happy during this flight.

–Dr Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester

Complimentary drinks voucher, to keep everyone sweet while their flight was delayed by nearly two hours.

Complimentary drinks voucher, to keep everyone sweet while their flight was delayed by nearly two hours.

Friday 20th September, afternoon.

After the thick cloud of the morning flight, and a satellite picture that showed cloud cover over the whole area we wanted to fly in, things were not looking too promising for this afternoon’s flight. This is because we want to fly low over the wetlands (at minimum safe altitude, which is about 500ft), however the pilots need to have sight of the ground in order to descend that low. With this in mind, we were slightly worried that we might not be able to get down to low level at all!  But the only way to know what is out there is to go out and see, so we set off with our fingers crossed.

We were planning to head north out of Kiruna, but somewhere along the line some wires got crossed, and the pilots set a course to the way point to the south. The confusion unfolded thusly (I paraphrase):

Ian (pilot): heading for way point N7.

Keith (mission scientist one): do you mean N1?

Ian: no, way point N7.

Keith: Oh.

So we decided there was no real reason why going to N7 or N1 was any better than the other, so we proceeded. And in the end, we concluded that this was a sound decision and Ian should be more involved in the flight planning in future! This is because after flying for a short while within the cloud layer, we found a break and descended to our favoured low altitude. And the first leg at this level (shown below) was excellent for measuring a methane and carbon dioxide gradient! In the figure below, the methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) shown is for the west-to-east leg shown in the flight track plot. The first half of the leg shows a gradual decrease in methane, which then levels out. This is consistent with many other flights we’ve done. This could be because there are a lot more pine trees and sandy soil in the eastern end, which are not really methane emitting.

The first part of our flight track, alongside preliminary methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) measurements.

The first part of our flight track, alongside preliminary methane (black) and carbon dioxide (red) measurements.

So despite the initial confusion, and the potential for a complete wash-out, we got some great measurements which will add to those we already have. And we got home in time for dinner (back to the hotel before 7pm for once) so all in all, a most successful day’s flying!

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

Friday 20th September, morning.

After yesterday’s transit to Kiruna and late afternoon wetland flight, today saw the first full day of MAMM ‘Science’ flying for the September 2013 campaign. The two teams of mission scientists once more split up into the ‘red’ and ‘azure’ teams, with the azure team drawing the short straw and getting the morning flight. This was a particularly exciting flight for me, as it was my first in the ‘hot seat’ as Mission Scientist 1. Unfortunately, the first thing that became apparent was that my legs were about 3” too long to afford me anything resembling comfort, although for any instrument scientists that may be reading this is proof positive that us mission scientists do occasionally suffer for our art as well.

The basic premise of today’s flight was to do some low level flying over northern Swedish and Finnish wetlands, and (as with the August 2013 flights) hoping to observe a methane gradient in the East-West legs with Southerly prevailing winds. Unfortunately a low cloud layer meant that we had to fly at around 5000 feet, but there was still a reasonably strong methane gradient that will be interesting to look at during the analysis. After this we flew North to the South Arctic Ocean, where we sampled what looked like methane emissions being blown from the northern Scandinavian wetlands. There were also some interesting methane enhancements at about 7000 feet that we observed when we were profiling, and we were able to make some bag measurements of these for isotopic analysis.

All in all it was a very successful flight, in which all of the intended targets were met, and I can safely report that view from the front of the cockpit was absolutely stunning, and almost entirely made up for the fact that I spent the rest of the day feeling like the male lead from ‘Misery’.

–Dr Sam Illingworth, University of Manchester

The last day of the August aircraft MAMM campaign (19 August) was all about sampling the methane closer to home as well as actually getting back to Cranfield; leaving the Arctic wetland methane behind us (until the September campaign of course). The day consisted of two flights, the first one was a straightforward transit flight from Kiruna, Sweden, to Aberdeen, Scotland; the second was a science flight off the East coast of England to sample methane leaking from gas rigs in the North Sea.

In Aberdeen we stopped for refuelling the aircraft and a short break. Overlooking the landscape taking off from Aberdeen, with its many farms and agricultural fields, villages, towns and roads  as far as they eye can see, it really brought home to me, how we humans have changed the surface of the Earth. What a contrast to the Arctic, where we had just been, where forests, bogs, lakes stretch for miles on end, with just single log cabins, dirt tracks and small parcels of fields interspersed in between. There humans have not  transformed the landscape completely yet.

Part of the ARA's flight track, measuring upwind and downwind of gas rigs.

Part of the ARA’s flight track, measuring upwind and downwind of gas rigs.

The mission for the second flight of the day was to sample methane that comes from anthropogenic or also called “man-made” activities: offshore extraction of natural gas. Natural gas mostly consists of methane, which we burn in our home in gas boilers, heaters and cooking stoves and it’s an important energy source. Beneath the North Sea, there are  plenty of gas deposits that are currently being exploited and the science mission for this final flight was see whether we could measure methane coming from a group of gas rigs from which we had observed methane leaks the year before.

Based on wind directions, GPS  position and the timing of the increased levels of methane observed in 2012,  we worked out that the leak must have then come from the Leman gas fields. The Leman complex consists of several gas rigs that are close to each other to form a group not too far from the mainland, and the extracted gas is piped to Bacton gas terminal at the UK’s Norfolk coast.

To understand and estimate how much additional methane in the air comes from these gas rigs, one needs to sample the clean upwind air, as well the downwind air that has the gas rig methane in it; and in very simple terms, the difference between “dirty” and “clean” can then be attributed to the gas extraction activities.

The pilots managed to fly low in the boundary layer close to the sea surface, effectively flying a big box pattern around the rigs. Luckily there wasn’t much helicopter and other air traffic and we could stay down low to do the track of the box several times, and indeed we measured higher levels of methane downwind of the rigs!

Seeing concentrations shoot up on instrument displays gives a certain kind of thrill and excitement, although of course the extra methane in the atmosphere is not necessarily good! Being a scientist can be a weird thing sometimes…

Similar to the Arctic methane sampling, we had a range of instruments and sampling approaches for this flight: one instrument measured concentrations very accurately, but somewhat slowly (1 measurement every second, i.e.  one point for every 100 m of the flight track), another instrument (the one I am working with) was set to sample very fast (10 measurements per second, i.e. means 1 measurement point every 10 m) and then “whole air sample” collection using canisters and air sample bags. Because you can only fill a limited number of canisters and bags during any one flight, you need to make each individual sample count, and fill the canister at the right time. These whole air samples are later analysed back in the laboratory, to give the fingerprint, i.e. isotopic ratio of the methane. The isotopic ratio will be useful to clearly identify this methane to be originating from the gas rigs and hence fossil gas, rather than from other methane sources which then got transported to the North Sea from further afield (for details on isotopic fingerprinting, check out the previous blog posts).

Collecting the whole air samples was rather interesting on this flight, as some of the plumes with high methane were very narrow- that means they lasted just a few seconds- so the whole air samplers (Dave Lowry and Mathias Lanoiselle from Royal Holloway University of London) had to have their eyes locked onto the fast methane display, and fast fingers to trigger the sample collection. I don’t know who was more at the edge of the seat — me or them? Me, because I tried to call out the large concentration increases, or them, because they actually had to make split second decisions on whether to fill their bags or not!

In the end, the flight went really well and we arrived back in Cranfield in the late afternoon, making it yet another long day.  The few days in the short August MAMM campaign were packed full of science, and it certainly felt like we’ve been away on campaign for weeks. Although my brain and body feel a bit bombed out from all the early mornings and short nights, with more hours being airborne than I care to count, I feel massively privileged to work as a scientist on this aircraft, with an extraordinary experienced team of pilots, engineers, operations and flight managers and of course mission & instrument scientists, who all pull out all the stops and contribute their expertise to make a misson happen and work out for the best, always, till the very end.

–Dr Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester

Goodbye to Kiruna, for this intensive operating period at least! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester.)

Goodbye to Kiruna, for this intensive operating period at least! (Photo credit: Jennifer Muller, University of Manchester.)

A slightly delayed post about Sunday’s flights, as we were all travelling home yesterday!

18th August 2013 – morning flight

Today marks the end of the August flying campaign for MAMM, a whilst there will be a transit back to the UK tomorrow (as well as hopefully some methane measurements over the off shore oil rigs in the North Sea), today’s flights are the last to be making methane measurements over the Arctic wetlands.

As the Blue Team began their morning flight things didn’t look to great weather-wise, and it was feared that we wouldn’t get the opportunity to descend through the cloud layer to make the necessary low level measurements. However, the pilots spotted a gap in the clouds just North of the Gulf of Bothnia and took us down. From there the weather kept on getting better, and there was a sufficient break in the cloud layer to enable us to add an additional leg to the flight plan, making box measurements over the Total Carbon Column Observing Network (TCCON) site in Sodankylä, Finland, which will be used for intercomparison work.

This was an excellent example of superb communication between the instrument scientists, the mission scientists, and the pilots, which meant that we were able to adapt our original aims to take advantage of the conditions. It was of course further proof that the Blue/Azure/Green team were top dog (although the help that we received from Red Team in terms of coordinating with the TCCON site to inform them of our intended flight path was also vital to our success, and definitely deserves a mention, albeit grudgingly and definitely in parenthesis).

–Dr Sam Illingworth, University of Manchester

18th August 2013 – afternoon flight

As the Red Team member who was co-ordinating with the Blue Team during their flight, I must emphasise the crucial role I played in using the chat room to keep up to date with the Blue Team and their new plans, and then making a phone call to the TCCON site manager. Yes, that was about all I did, and I feel very proud of myself.

As I write this (on Monday afternoon), on a commercial flight home, the ARA will be flying around gas fields in the North Sea, and will then fly over East Anglia to hopefully sample some agricultural or landfill emissions. That will be the final flight for this campaign, until our next one in September. But back to yesterday afternoon’s flight, which followed on from the surprise hit that was the morning flight. Coming off the aircraft, the Blue Team were positively glowing with excitement at how well it had gone. We could not be out done, so we were determined to see ours through as well as we possibly could.

I was wearing my Michelle “Sticks to the Plan” Cain t-shirt (from a previous campaign), and that is pretty much what we did. And it worked very well too. We flew the same path as the morning’s flight (except for the TCCON part), and I think we saw the build up of methane form the day’s wetland emissions. Until we have calibrated the methane measurements, we won’t know if this is the case, but from the information we have so far, we think there was more methane in the afternoon. We should then be able to work out how much was added to the atmosphere over the course of the day, which is one of the project’s aims.

The University of Lund's Sky Arrow, getting ready for take off. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

The University of Lund’s Sky Arrow, getting ready for take off. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

The University of Lund’s Sky Arrow also flew today. They took off shortly after us, and flew the first section of our flight plan. The Sky Arrow is a lightweight aircraft, with room for the pilot and either one other person, or some kit to make measurements. Clearly, they took the latter! They also flew over to Abisko, where we have some ground measurements ongoing. We are all keen to find out what their measurements are and how they compare to our own.

Overall, I felt that this was a great day to end on — for me at least, some others are still out there! In between the two flights, we gathered everyone who was around to have a group photo, so we will all have a little reminder of the campaign.

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

Most of the August detachment MAMM team, on the last full day of flying. (Photo credit: John Pyle.)

Most of the August detachment MAMM team, on the last full day of flying. Don’t despair — we’ll be back in September! (Photo credit: John Pyle.)

Flight 1

The first full day of MAMM flying kicked off at 9 am local time, as the FAAM Atmospheric Research Aircraft (ARA) took to the skies to begin the morning’s measurements of wetland emissions. Only for some of the MAMM team things began an awful lot earlier than take off, with the engineers and some of the instrument scientists having to report for duty at an eye watering 5am local time! This is even more unsociable when you convert it into in Zulu time, the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) used by all pilots, regardless of location, thereby avoiding confusion when flying between time zones. In Zulu time some of the crew were at the hanger for 3 am, something that even Michael Caine and his welsh fighting choir would have balked at.

After take-off from Kiruna airport the ARA flew North and then West towards the Fino-Russian border, where it then began a series of raster patterns at low altitudes, flying over the Northern Finnish wetlands looking for gradients in the methane emissions as we traversed the landscape from East – West and then North to South. (Check out this podcast to find out more.) Early results are hard to quantify without rigorous calibration, but looking at the raw data it appeared as though there were definitely some detectable gradients in the methane across some of the East-West transits, especially in the more Southern regions towards the Gulf of Bothnia. It was postulated that one of the methane spikes in this region was related to agriculture, as it dropped off as we moved from farmland into more of a mixed-forest landscape.

–Dr Sam Illingworth, University of Manchester.

The blue team, aka the azure team, just after their morning flight. L-R: Grant, Sam, Nicola, plus instrument operator Jennifer in the background. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

The blue team, aka the azure team, just after their morning flight. L-R: Grant, Sam, Nicola, plus instrument operator Jennifer in the background. (Photo credit: Michelle Cain.)

Flight 2

The flight track of today's 2 flights on top of one another. Spot on!

The flight track of today’s 2 flights on top of one another. Spot on!

We followed exactly the same flight path as this morning’s flight. Credit to the amazing  (auto) pilots! Like the earlier flight, we also saw gradual changes in the methane concentration as we traversed east to went and north to south. With the low wind speeds we were in, we should be able to get a good picture of how much methane was coming out from the ground in the region we flew over.

This morning, I and the rest of the red team (Keith Bower and John Pyle) are planning tomorrow’s flights, and checking up on the current weather for the blue (or azure to some) team, who are flying right now! They have seen some high methane concentrations, which is great, but they have a few people on board feeling unwell, who won’t be able to fly this afternoon. Such is our dedication to getting good measurements that we will fly low and bumpy (and so the seatbelt signs are on and we can’t get up) without any comfort breaks if the methane demands it! I’ll definitely be taking a pre-emptive Kwells this afternoon…

–Dr Michelle Cain, University of Cambridge

The red team, trying to look natural (L-R: Michelle, John, Keith.), with the blue team infiltrator Grant on the far right.

The red team, trying to look natural, L-R: Michelle, John, Keith, with the blue team infiltrator Grant on the far right. (Photo credit: Nicola Warwick/Michelle Cain.)

So here we are on another exciting expedition to the Arctic. One of my roles in the project is to plan the flights that we will do and to coordinate the wider flight planning team. There are various things that have to be balanced and kept in mind and a lot of skill and people inform this very complex process. This involves designing the flight path to optimize sampling of the atmosphere within the constraints of the weather, the aviation rules and instrument requirements (e.g. calibrations) in order to meet the science objectives of the day. For MAMM, this means detecting small enhancements of methane and other trace gases and determining their source and source strength. Put simply, this means lots of low level flying and flying over wider areas to characterise the methane “background” and local (and long-range) emission sources. This blog details the planning process and other blog entries will discuss the science.

The ARA in flight. (Photo credit: FAAM.)

The ARA in flight. (Photo credit: FAAM.)

The Atmospheric Research Aircraft (run by FAAM, a joint NERC/Met Office facility) is a converted passenger jet that has had most of the seats ripped out and replaced with state-of-the-art scientific instruments. Many of these instruments are operated by dedicated highly trained scientists and up to 18 may be on board on any one flight. The scientists coordinate in flight with the “Mission Scientists” who are the team of people who coordinate the flight plan and its design and make decisions in the air based on the data reported to them. But a lot has to happen before the plane leaves the ground and flight design starts several days before take-off by looking at weather forecasts and prioritizing science objectives around things like cloud cover, rain and wind direction. The planning team holds teleconferences daily to keep updated on the weather and any other information that impinges on the priority list until a final decision is made on what type of flight (e.g. low level of the land surface or high over the sea) will be conducted. After this decision has been made, a sortie brief is created by the mission scientists, which is passed to staff at FAAM, Directflight (who operate the aircraft) and the pilots, who create an operational flight plan and advise on any aviation restrictions that might be in force. Sometimes this requires the flight plan to be iterated by the planning team and the flight plan is typically finalized within 24 hours of take-off.

Two hours before take-off, the lead mission scientist (mission scientist 1, MS1) briefs the science and aircrew team on the flight plan and the scientific objectives and there is an open discussion of what to look out for, or any requirements from the instrument scientists. And then it’s all aboard.

Prof John Pyle and Dr Grant Allen are fearless against the threat of coffee spillage on board the research aircraft. (Photo credit: Nicola Warwick, University of Cambridge)

Dr Grant Allen (L) and Prof John Pyle (R) are fearless against the threat of coffee spillage on board the research aircraft. (Photo credit: Nicola Warwick, University of Cambridge.)

Shortly after take off, everyone goes to work, examining the data that is coming in in real-time and feeding interesting observations forward to MS1 so that decisions can be made in the air about potential changes to the flight plan that can optimize sampling (for example, if we’ve detected a strong plume of methane along the way). This is then discussed between the MS team and with the Captain, who has the final say on whether the plan can be modified. It is fair to say that the pilots (and everyone at FAAM and Directflight) bend over backwards to give us the best science that is possible and the scientific success we’ve had from FAAM data are testament to this.

For MAMM, we will be doing “double flights”. This means about 10 hours of flying a day with a 1-hour refuel. It is a very long day for the instrument scientists who have to switch on instruments and perform various pre-flight tasks 4 hours before take-off. So we’re looking at 16 hour days for most people. This long day and the fact that we will fly every day also means that there will be two planning teams – a blue and a red team. The Blue team will be led by Grant Allen and the red team by Keith Bower and coordinated with Sam Illingworth, John Pyle, Nicola Warwick and Michelle Cain. The teams will take it in turns to plan the flights for the following day, which they will then fly while the other team does the planning. Of course, the blue team will get the best science….

–Dr Grant Allen, University of Manchester