April 17, 2012 Glacier Running in Eastern Greenland
Another great day with lots of new experiences on the NASA IceBridge flight. I was invited by the flight crew to join the pilots in the cockpit for takeoff, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. As a young child I wanted to fly more than anything except going to space. There’s just something about being in the air and taking it all in … seeing the big picture. As a kid I experimented with lots of different ideas trying to achieve this goal. I vividly remember those many failures … jumping off the porch roof with an umbrella … strapping on cardboard wings and jumping off that same roof … trying to make a flying backpack out of the lawnmower engine, and the list goes on from there. And for those of you reading this journal entry, there is no need to try this at home … the umbrella, the cardboard wings, the lawnmower flying backpack … none of them work. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity to fly in the cockpit of the NASA P-3 aircraft.
After a smooth 8:00 AM take off one of the crewmembers reported a loud abnormal flapping in the rear of the aircraft. Lots of things run through your head during those brief moments, but the crew was great and I didn’t miss a beat taking in the spectacular view out the cockpit windows. Any direction you look there’s something to see. After some brief tense moments and discussion in the cockpit, the decision was made to return to the airport to determine the cause of the noise. However, at that point we were carrying a full load of fuel for the expected 8-hour flight. That meant the aircraft was too heavy to land, so the decision was made to climb to 12,000 feet where we could safely conduct a fuel dump, lighten the aircraft, and return for a landing. And that’s exactly what happened.
The issue was resolved on the ground and we were back in the air around 11:15 AM headed for glacier runs at Helheim and Kangerd glaciers in eastern Greenland. A glacier run is where you fly at a low altitude (less than 1500 feet) right up the glacier valley. The valley walls rise above you on both sides and when the glacier makes a turn … so do you. And yes it’s as fun as it sounds. Check out the video as well as the picture below.
By now, you might be wondering what it’s like to be on the NASA research plane for 8 hours at a time. I can tell you the time goes a lot faster than it does flying on a commercial airline. IceBridge is currently flying nine instruments onboard the P-3. Don’t worry, I’ll be spending some time in future journals describing the various instruments in more depth. But to make a long story short for now, each instrument is designed to observe a different property of the ice, and collectively the array of instruments allows us to measure from the surface all the way down to the bedrock on which it sits at the same geographical location and at the same time. This is what makes IceBridge data so different and valuable from other ice data sets. Since the observations are made simultaneously, we are actually getting a snapshot not just of the surface, but a snapshot of what the ice looks like all the way through to bedrock.
These specialized instruments require a well-trained team for operations. In total, the NASA P-3 aircraft holds 24 people. The current flight crew requires seven of those slots leaving 17 slots for the instrument operators/managers, and education and public outreach personnel. Once we’re up in the air and instruments are operating properly, we all have an opportunity to walk around. Talking on the P-3 can be a little difficult because the aircraft is very noisy, but most have learned to deal with it or wear noise-canceling headphones. The other issue is that riding on the P-3 over mountainous terrain with updrafts and down drafts you better expect a bumping ride, and that’s exactly what you get. It can be a little unsettling at first for some people, but you just get used to it because it’s an environment you have to work in.
Coffee and water are provided by the flight crew, but it’s up to each person to bring their lunch and snacks. We have a microwave onboard, as well as what one might call a bathroom that is a bit primitive. But … hey … what can you expect? It is after all an old military aircraft that has been modified for science research. And what I’ve found working with scientists and engineers over the years is that if they have their choice between spending money on an improved instrument or piece of equipment, or a better bathroom, they’ll take the improved instrument most every time.