UW’s King Air 200T is the only atmospheric research aircraft in the National Science Foundation-supported fleet operated by a university
The University of Wyoming owns two Beechcraft King Air aircraft – a 1977 King Air 200T and a 1983 King Air B200 – operated by the Department of Atmospheric Science and based at Laramie Regional Airport.
Personnel at the university use the B200 for transportation while the uniquely-instrumented 200T is the only atmospheric research aircraft in the National Science Foundation-supported fleet operated by a university. Scientists funded by the National Science Foundation can apply to use the King Air for airborne atmospheric science research.
About 50 percent of the research conducted with the 200T, tail number N2UW and equipped with numerous specialized meteorological sensors and data recording equipment, is related to understanding how clouds and aerosols form and how they affect the earth’s energy balance.
“The demand for N2UW has been fairly steady at a yearly rate of about 180 hours, supporting three to five projects each year. Recently, there has been much interest in studying wild fire chemistry and a renewed interest in weather modification,” said Alfred Rodi, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science in the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.
“Our King Air is equipped with many instruments, making it a multi-mission aircraft. Supporting such a facility, which is competitive with research aircraft operated in federal labs, is beyond the scope of what is possible at most universities. The University of Wyoming was fortunate to have started its work with atmospheric research in the 1960s and built up both the engineering capability and operational infrastructure to make this possible.”
History of airborne atmospheric science at UW
Rodi is also director of the university’s Donald L. Veal Research Flight Center, which houses the King Airs. About 15 individuals are involved with the support of the aircraft, including engineers, technicians, support scientists, pilots, mechanics, a scheduler and office staff. Additionally, several faculty are closely involved with airborne research and with the development of new capabilities.
The University of Wyoming has operated aircraft for atmospheric research for the past 50 years, using three different Beechcraft platforms. Airborne research started at the university in the 1960s when a twin-engine Beechcraft C-45 supported research funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the effects of cloud seeding. A doctorate-granting Department of Atmospheric Science was established in 1971, the same year a Beech Queen Air replaced the C-45. The scope of department research broadened in the 1970s, with the aircraft, faculty and staff supporting the National Science Foundation’s National Hail Research Experiment and the World Meteorological Organization’s weather modification verification projects in Spain.
The university purchased the King Air 200T new in 1977, initially supported through funds from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for weather modification cloud verification studies through the mid-1980s. It has been heavily modified with a nose boom, large ports for downward viewing using radar and lidar, and many probe locations including the wing tips, where a factory-installed modification was made for fuel tanks but instead of tanks they have mounted instruments.
“The sophistication of the aircraft and instrumentation had increased so much by that time that the faculty realized it could not on its own continue to support the King Air at the high level it had attained,” Rodi said. “The solution was found in 1987 when UW negotiated a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to make the Wyoming King Air available as a national facility. The Wyoming Cloud Radar was added to the agreement in 2004, the Wyoming Cloud Lidar was added in 2010, and we are presently in the seventh NSF/UW cooperative agreement. NSF-supported scientists are eligible to apply for deployment of these facilities.”
Since the cooperative agreement began in 1988, N2UW has supported about 75 projects for the atmospheric sciences community in conjunction with an array of universities and principal investigators.
“We also have a close relationship with the Research Aviation Facility at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, which operates a C-130 and Gulfstream V under NSF support,” Rodi said.
These assets are part of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Lower Atmospheric Observing Facilities program. The program oversees a suite of research platforms that are called national facilities and available for use by NSF-funded scientists for research on a wide range of atmospheric phenomena, from severe weather to drought to air quality.
A quarter of N2UW’s projects are in support of Wyoming faculty using funding from other agencies. The university has other atmospheric science assets as well: the Wyoming Air Quality Assessment Monitoring Laboratory and the Mobile Air Chemistry Laboratory, a heavily instrumented Sprinter van, are used for mobile and longer-term monitoring and observation. Together, the laboratories and the King Air facilitate the gathering of and interpretation of atmospheric measurements directly relevant to the state and region.
UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science also operates an observing facility at the 11,000-foot level on a mountain near Laramie. The team has also conducted extensive high-altitude balloon launches to study the aerosol composition of the upper atmosphere in Laramie, Antarctica, Europe, Africa and South America.
How N2UW is employed
The aircraft’s scientific payload is reconfigured for every project to suit each unique mission. The team can restructure instruments internal to the cabin and external probes that mount in the wing pods and nose extension. N2UW is commonly configured to accommodate Wyoming Cloud Radar and Wyoming Cloud Lidar, cutting-edge, remote-sensing instruments developed at the University of Wyoming that complement in-situ observations at aircraft flight level.
“Our instrumentation is non-standard, so we have versatile engineers and technicians who we put a lot of effort into training,” Rodi said. “We also have two FAA-Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) who work with our Inspector Authorized A&P mechanic to implement electrical and structural modifications to the aircraft to support scientific missions.”
N2UW has supported a wide range of atmospheric missions across the continental U.S., in Hawaii and Alaska, as well as internationally in Japan, Saudi Arabia, U.K., Finland, Martinique and Dominica. The largest body of work is the study of clouds, which involves flights in and around clouds of different types ranging from wintertime stratus to summertime thunderstorms. UW also regularly conducts low-level probing of the atmosphere near the earth’s surface in measuring fluxes of moisture, heat and momentum exchanges between the surface and the atmosphere.
Other project types include studying the dynamics of how clouds form using a sophisticated system to measure winds, and monitoring the atmospheric effects of wildfires. There also have been endeavors related to aviation, from studying the meteorology and turbulence around the approaches to Juneau, Alaska, to microburst and wind studies in Colorado and conducting research on the microphysics of aircraft icing in various types of clouds.
“One very important activity is exposing students to this facility, encouraging the next generation of airborne scientists,” Rodi said. “We have done several education-only deployments.
When asked for an example of how the King Air 200T performs in research situations, Brett Wadsworth, UW’s chief research pilot shares this anecdote:
“We were flying over the Snowy Range Mountains in southeast Wyoming at the minimum IFR altitude during a snowstorm. We had been airborne for about three hours flying a holding pattern while collecting data. Obviously, during the flight we had burned over 2,000 pounds of fuel and the throttle had slowly been adjusted back to maintain research airspeed of 160 KIAS. We had encountered relatively light to moderate ice during the flight, but the de-ice boots were cleanly shedding with activation and the growth of ice on unprotected surfaces was reasonable and expected. On the next-to-last lap of the pattern, we encountered a new pocket of super-cooled moisture that had moved into the area. The plane shuddered slightly as we hit the pocket. The windshield iced over somewhat, and the wing boots had to be activated as over one-half inch of ice had developed. Aircraft performance remained normal with no power changes required. We decided to make one more lap. When we encountered the pocket of moisture again, the conditions had grown more significant. The aircraft shuddered again, the windshield iced over, and airspeed instantly started to decrease. After pushing up the props to 2,000 RPM and the throttles to max, the airspeed decreased and finally stabilized at 140 KIAS. The aircraft handling qualities were unchanged, for a heavy aircraft, the engines performed flawlessly and, needless to say, we had had enough research for the day and went home.”
Wadsworth’s account sums up why the King Air has been the best aircraft to build the university’s atmospheric research capabilities during the past 40 years.
“While more engine power would have been greatly welcomed in this instance,” he explained, “the aircraft performed flawlessly. N2UW has proven to be an ideal aircraft for the type of operations we conduct. Its reliability, hardiness and predictable handling characteristics are great features when we are planning to investigate more challenging weather conditions.”
A typical flight ranges from 3.5 to 4 hours, preserving standard IFR reserve fuel. The aircraft is flown single-pilot, allowing the co-pilot seat to be occupied by a scientist who ensures the desired data is collected during the mission. A UW support scientist sits behind the cockpit to operate the data acquisition system, and one or two seats further back are for scientific observers, typically students. Additionally, there is dedicated UW ground support during field deployments.
“The pilot, principal investigator and system scientist work as a team in flight to adjust profiles to meet mission objects,” Rodi said. “We do not just fly boxes based on waypoints, the aircraft is an interactive platform. Our missions usually are highly interactive with the pilot and scientific crew communicating on a hot mic system. While we have a thorough pre-flight briefing, this allows decisions to be made in-flight as the conditions are encountered.”
The department’s experienced pilots are capable of complex flights that involve decision-making related to potentially hazardous weather and frequent in-flight interactions with the scientific crew and the FAA to modify flight plans.
The King Air’s PT6-42 engines are critical because the aircraft has been approved to operate at a 14,000-pound takeoff weight and missions often take the aircraft into icing conditions. The aircraft had 300-amp generators installed originally in 1977. In 2004, the Raisbeck Ram Air Recovery System was incorporated. In 2010, TCAS II, Universal UNS-1Lw FMS and a satellite link were added as well as four-blade Raisbeck/Hartzell propellers. ADS-B installation is scheduled for early 2018.
Rodi said the department would like to find funding to replace N2UW with a new or late model used King Air 350 with the heavy weight option for a 17,500-pound takeoff weight. The King Air platform, though, will continue to play a role in atmospheric science research because of its performance and the accessibility of parts and factory support – even during long, international deployments.