Airborne Science - A Look at Research Aircraft

By Annareli Morales, SOARS Protégé​​

Woman posing excitedly next to a plane
Annareli, excited to be next to cloud instruments attached to the wings of the G-V aircraft. (Photo courtesy of SOARS protégé Andre Perkins.)

Students touring the outside of an aircraft
Students visiting the C-130 research aircraft. (Photo: Annareli Morales)


Students touring the inside of an aircraft
Students walking in between racks of scientific instruments and monitoring systems within the very narrow aisle of the  G-V.

It's not every day that you get to tour expensive and advanced research aircraft that fly high and low through hurricanes, winter cyclones, and thunderstorms all around the globe.

Last week some fellow SOARS protégés and I traveled to the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, CO. We weren't there to catch a flight for Vegas, but to get a tour of NCAR's Research Aviation Facility. Before we even left, the main question floating around was “Are the planes there?”

Most of us study or are interested in atmospheric science, so we had all heard stories of these fantastic planes that aid scientists like us in our understanding of extreme weather. It is difficult to understand the atmosphere because most of the processes are invisible to the naked eye or too far for us to sample from the surface. These research aircraft allow scientists to sample the air and get a better understanding of the physical and chemical processes occurring above our heads. These legendary aircraft are the C-130 and the Gulfstream-V (HIAPER).

We hit the jackpot! The C-130 was there being taken care of in between projects and the G-V had just arrived from a summer long project over the Great Plains studying thunderstorms and atmospheric chemistry. We were going to see both planes in one afternoon!

The first plane we saw was the C-130. As we entered the hanger, this enormous military plane with an awesome snowflake painted on the tail greeted us. It felt extremely warm inside the hanger as we walked in and around the C-130. Let me tell you, the inside of this plane is huge! Although it seemed very spacious at the time, when this plane is fully loaded with all the science equipment, racks of instruments and scientists it's a different story.

Getting the tour of the second plane gave us this different story. Since the G-V had just landed from its project, it still had all the cloud and chemistry instruments attached to the wings and the top and bottom of the plane. If the C-130 is a Hummer, the G-V is the Ferrari of research aircraft. It's sleek, fancy and can reach up to 51,000 feet! On the other hand, the inside of this plane could trigger claustrophobia. It was less than 6 feet high and with the racks of scientific instruments and monitoring systems, the aisle was about 3 feet wide. There are a couple seats inside, but those are reserved for absolutely necessary scientists that help guide the pilots through thunderstorms and monitor the equipment on various computers.

Touring these research aircraft was, for some of us, the highlight of the summer. One of the students on the tour is working on a summer project using data that was retrieved using the G-V. By seeing in person the instrument that gathered her data, she gained a larger appreciation for her work and the effort of everyone involved in the field project.

The opportunity to see these planes made me even more excited to continue research in the field of cloud microphysics and atmospheric chemistry. At times I felt emotional just thinking of my scientific career and what the future may hold. I hope one day I get the privilege to sit in one of those 'VIP Only' seats and fly through our atmosphere, seeing meteorological phenomena only a handful of people have seen face to face.

For now, I'll keep my head in the clouds and my eye on the prize!

Annareli Morales
Annareli Morales is a SOARS Protégé who received her BS in Atmospheric Science/Geology from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is interested in studying aerosols and their effects on clouds and precipitation on the present and future climate. Find out more about Annareli Morales research and the SOARS Program.