350CER’s versatility and extended range make it NOAA’s ‘King of the Road’
When Hurricane Matthew started on its path of destruction from the Caribbean to the Southeast United States last fall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Marine and Aviation Operations was called into action. Three aircraft and one ship supported forecasting, research and post-storm survey operations as the storm approached and moved along the Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina coasts.
NOAA’s Lockheed WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV-SP Hurricane Hunter aircraft conducted 19 storm reconnaissance, research and surveillance flights, operating a total of 158 hours. After Hurricane Matthew passed, NOAA’s Beechcraft King Air 350CER (featuring a cargo door and extended range) conducted eight aerial survey missions in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), collecting high-resolution imagery in areas impacted by the storm. Also following the storm, NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler surveyed channels in the Charleston Harbor and Port of Savannah using multibeam echo sounders to check for any submerged hazards to navigation resulting from the storm.
NOAA is a science-based federal agency within the Department of Commerce with regulatory, operational, information service and public safety responsibilities. The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. They command the NOAA ships and pilot the NOAA aircraft that play a vital role in the acquisition and analysis of environmental data needed to meet national security, economic and environmental challenges.
A Century of Service
Faced with tough national security and economic challenges and a natural world governed by powerful and mysterious forces that often threatened life, property and commerce, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill creating a new federal agency in 1807 that would support the nation’s defense, promote the well-being of its citizens and unlock nature’s secrets. The new agency’s mission was to chart the nation’s coastal waters to ensure that ships could move civilians, troops and material safely.
During the next 150 years, that agency – the Survey of the Coast and later the Coast & Geodetic Survey (C&GS) – would prove itself in war as well as in peacetime. With America’s entry into World War I, a commissioned service of the C&GS was formed on May 22, 1917, to ensure the rapid assimilation of C&GS technical skills for defense purposes. During World War II, officers and civilians of the C&GS produced nautical and aeronautical charts, provided critical geospatial information to artillery units and conducted reconnaissance surveys.
Eventually the organization became known as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and today NOAA and the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, one of the lesser known of the U.S.’s seven uniformed services, conduct the work of the C&GS and more. The direct descendants of the C&GS, NOAA and the NOAA Corps work every day on land, in the air and on the sea to keep the nation secure and productive by providing products and services that support maritime domain awareness; help ensure safe passage of commercial and military traffic on our nation’s waterways; warn mariners, aviators and the public of severe weather; aid search and rescue efforts; and conserve and protect our natural resources.
NOAA is comprised of the National Weather Service; National Marine Fisheries Service; Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research; National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service; National Ocean Service; and the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. For the past 100 years, the NOAA Corps officers have commanded NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft, and they serve within each of the above NOAA line offices.
NOAA’s Aircraft Fleet
NOAA has conducted airborne environmental data gathering missions for more than four decades. A fleet of nine manned aircraft is operated, managed and maintained at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center (AOC), part of NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations.
In June, the AOC moved from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, into a new facility at Lakeland (Florida) Linder Regional Airport that serves as the main base for the aircraft fleet. The AOC has a 58,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, office space and facilities for aircraft repairs and component storage.
Three aircraft in the fleet are called hurricane hunters: two Lockheed WP-3D Orion four-engine turboprop aircraft fly directly into the storms while a Gulfstream IV-SP jet flies missions above and around the storms. All three are equipped with tail Doppler radar and the ability to deploy weather data-gathering probes in flight, and their mission is to forecast the hurricane with precision accuracy while gathering data that can help scientists better understand storm processes in order to improve forecast models. Outside of the hurricane hunting, these aircraft also conduct atmospheric and air chemistry studies missions.
The NOAA’s light aircraft also help monitor the environment and they operate nationwide. The Beechcraft King Air 350CER twin-turboprop is used primarily for coastal mapping and emergency response. A Gulfstream Turbo Commander AC-695A high-wing, twin-engine turboprop spends most of its time collecting data used to forecast river levels, water flow and potential flooding events when the snow melts. Four de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter turboprops support airborne marine mammal, hydrological, remote sensing, air chemistry and emergency response programs. NOAA also operates unmanned aircraft systems to observe marine life, seabirds and their habitat.
A team of 110 civilians and officers of the NOAA Corps oversee these aerial assets. One of those officers is Commander Mark Sweeney, deputy director of the National Geodetic Survey’s Remote Sensing Division within NOAA.
Sweeney went to Cornell University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, then was commissioned in the Navy and went to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and Corpus Christi, Texas. He served as a Navy pilot for 10 years, with his last duty station at the Naval Research Laboratory, where he trained some of NOAA’s P-3 pilots and learned about the organization’s mission.
In 2006, he made an inter-service transfer to NOAA and began flying the P-3 hurricane hunters and the Twin Otters before switching over to a Cessna Citation II that was conducting coastal mapping at the time.
The King Air 350CER
Sweeney flew the hurricane hunters and the Citation for several years and then camera equipment changes brought a change in platforms.
“We were switching from large-format film cameras to digital cameras, which have a lower resolution than film and required us to fly at lower altitudes,” Sweeney said. “It wasn’t efficient to fly the Citation at 7,000 to 10,000 feet and it had growing maintenance costs because of its age.”
A selection team chose the King Air 350CER for its performance, operating costs and versatility. While the aircraft is used primarily for coastal mapping and emergency response, NOAA wanted an airplane with the flexibility to be used for any of its line offices.
“We needed a multi-engine aircraft with legs that could get out to Hawaii, up to Alaska and down to the Caribbean without too much jumping around to get there,” Sweeney said. “We also wanted fuel efficiency and an airplane that could carry the camera payloads that we have. We also needed a platform with a good dash speed so that if we’re in the Pacific Northwest on a coastal mapping mission and something happens in the Southeast that requires an emergency response we would be able to be there quickly.”
NOAA’s King Air combines the extended range version of the 350 (an extra 1,580 pounds of fuel) with a 52-inch-by-49-inch cargo door. The agency purchased its 2009 Beechcraft King Air 350CER new from the factory and immediately sent it to Avcon Industries in Newton, Kansas, north of the Textron Aviation factory in Wichita. Avcon installed modifications necessary for the King Air’s primary roles.
The aircraft’s main modification is two large, downward-facing sensor ports that can support a wide variety of remote sensing systems, including digital cameras, multispectral and hyperspectral sensors, and topographic and bathymetric LIDAR systems (measuring water depth using light detection and ranging).
“One port is right at the main cabin door and one is just a little forward of that,” Sweeney said. “They allow us to mount a camera or other sensor in a well in the floor. It shoots straight down through the floor of the plane through about an inch-and-a-half thick optical glass. It’s structural glass that maintains the pressure bulkhead of the plane and it’s optically clear so that it does not distort. There are telescoping doors that cover the glass when it’s not being used to protect that expensive optical glass.”
Sweeney said the King Air most often flies using a multi-camera system. That allows the crew to successfully fly coastal mapping missions that require cameras to be pointed straight down while also collecting oblique imagery of the shoreline that will be useful when assessing future damage to a particular area.
“Our camera systems allow us to do some sophisticated 3-D modeling of the entire shoreline,” Sweeney said. “Then after an event like a mudslide, earthquake or storm we can reassess and see what changes have taken place as a result of that event.”
The optical plates can be removed and the aircraft operated unpressurized, for example if the glass will degrade a laser signal. Other modifications include bubble windows that allow an observer to see down and two window blanks.
“As a product of all of the mods we have, the tail end of the airplane is very heavy,” Sweeney said. “We flew it for a couple of months in 2009 and we had some problems with the camera door, so when we took it back to Avcon to have that looked at we explained that the CG on the plane was so far aft that we couldn’t put fuel in the ER tanks and accomplish the mission that we wanted to accomplish. The fix ended up being taking a lot of the avionics equipment out of the aft bay and moving it into the forward avionics bay and the nose, and also putting some ballast weight up there.”
‘King of the Road’
Because of those adjustments, the aircraft didn’t actually enter service until March 2010 when it began flying missions from Puerto Rico to assess damage caused by the earthquake in Haiti.
In the seven years since, NOAA’s King Air 350CER has accumulated 3,972 hours, or roughly 560 hours per year. There is rarely a time when the King Air returns to the AOC to remain idle because it is in between projects, like some of the other NOAA fleet aircraft. The airplane is almost always in action – on the road – so the crew came up with the slogan “King of the Road” that it wears on a patch on their flight suits.
Most of the King Air’s hours have come from conducting coastal mapping for the Remote Sensing Division, which creates nautical charts used by a variety of agencies and companies, including commercial fisherman. Other hours come from flying emergency response missions to collect aerial imagery following destructive events such as tornadoes, hurricanes making landfall or flooding events that agencies like FEMA could then use to assess damage paying claims and providing support.
Sweeney describes the emergency response missions as an extension of the coastal mapping missions: both are about getting vital imagery but the circumstances are very different. On mapping flights, the pilots are chasing great weather and ideal conditions (no cloud cover, tide has to be just right, optimal sun angle) for capturing useful images. The flights typically take them to beautiful settings. In contrast, flights to support an emergency such as a hurricane can take the pilots into terrible weather. Rather than taking their time to get just the right images, they need to collect the data quickly and get it to the agencies waiting for it.
“We might be providing images for FEMA to decide if they need to evacuate an area or let homeowners return,” Sweeney said, adding that FEMA will use the images during and after an event. “FEMA typically would have to send out assessors to a disaster area to go house-to-house to assess the levels of damage. That’s very expensive for them to send people out on the ground. Our imagery allows them to look at an entire neighborhood at once and make those assessments much faster and at less expense.”
In 2016, NOAA’s King Air 350CER supported severe flooding in Louisiana in August and in October flew missions to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew and to monitor river flooding in North Carolina caused by heavy rain from the dissipated hurricane.
A typical crew on the King Air 350CER is two pilots and one sensor operator; the AOC has seven pilots qualified to fly the King Air and two sensor operators assigned to work onboard. Most pilots, like Sweeney, will fly one of the hurricane hunters as well as one of the smaller platforms. The difference of flying conditions between the aircraft is significant as is the difference in flying the two main missions of the King Air 350CER.
“The emergency response flights can be very disheartening when you’re flying over vast areas of flooding or destruction and you’re typically flying in when there is still lingering weather in the area,” Sweeney said. “On the other hand, the coastal mapping is great, it’s almost all shoreline settings in nice, scenic areas with perfect weather conditions.”