LARAMIE — A storm brewed over Casper and Medicine Bow in early March, which meant flying north was off the table.
The scientists aboard the University of Wyoming’s King Air wanted weather, but not too much. They were testing new instruments for an upcoming trip to Martinique, an island northeast of Venezuela. They needed 20 minutes in clouds and 20 in clear sky.
On March 4, Research pilot Ahmad Bandani would fly them northwest. He flew helicopters in the Marines for 21 years and could navigate the UW scientists wherever they needed to go.
“There will be turbulence,” he cautioned.
King Air is one of only a handful of its kind in the country. It’s the only university plane funded mostly by the National Science Foundation. Its main mission is to study atmospheric precipitation, producing data for scientists studying anything from forecasting floods to how best to divide water resources.
The plane and staff travel across the world collecting information for dozens of scientists. In January it will continue work with a UW professor, measuring the effects of the Wyoming Water Development Commission’s current cloud seeding program.
Bandani and two research scientists, Matt Burkhart and Jeff French, the center flight
director for the department of atmospheric sciences, settled in the front of the plane.
French sat in front of a built-in laptop. He and Burkhart connected the computer system to the plane’s many sensors and probes used for measuring particles in the air and liquid in clouds.
An airport weather report chattered in the background while they checked the machines.
Instruments prepped, the pilot took off, flying first through Laramie’s clear skies before heading for clouds southeast of Elk Mountain.
“AIAS and BIAS look good,” French said, referencing the plane’s air speed indicators critical for all other measurements.
“Temperatures look good. Dew points look good,” Burkhart responded.
A long history
UW has two King Air, twin-engine, turbo-prop passenger planes.
One can fly up to seven trustees and administration officials. The other has four seats: one for the pilot, three for scientists. Machines and computers fill the rest of the cabin, leaving a tiny aisle just big enough for a person.
A Wyoming bucking bronco decorates the outside with the name N2UW painted on the tail.
UW got its first plane in 1967: a World War II-era Twin Beech C-45. The King Air is the third research plane, bought new in 1977. UW operated off a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation until the late ’80s, when it paired with the National Science Foundation.
The foundation now pays for about 70 percent of the plane’s operation, the other 30 percent coming from work with other agencies. Flight time runs about $1,500 per hour.
Several other universities, including the University of North Dakota and Purdue University, have planes that perform cloud measurements, but they are generally smaller and more niche.
On Friday, the plane landed in Martinique in the Caribbean. For a month, French, the rest of the UW crew and a Yale professor will study how cloud formations relate to the amount of rain that falls on the mountainous island of Dominica. Clouds seem to hit the island, drop a huge amount of rain, dry up and move on. They want to know why.
In a similar experiment in February, King Air spent hours above mountains in northern Colorado studying how peaks affect precipitation.
Understanding the relationship between clouds and mountains can help scientists draw water-related conclusions on many ranges in the West. This can then help determine policy on how to divide water, as well as predict what’s to come for this arid region.
In 2006, the plane went to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in eastern California to measure turbulence and wave activity. The data was used to help predict storms that affect planes.
Two years earlier, scientists used the plane to investigate how energy moves from the surface of the Great Lakes to the atmosphere, creating severe downwind snow storms. As with the California study, the information could help forecast these types of storms, warning people of feet of snow.
New gear, new studies
By the end of the year, King Air will be back in Wyoming getting ready for a local project. About 40 percent of the plane’s research is performed with UW faculty, and this one will be led by Bart Geerts, an associate professor with UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science and also with a scientist from the atmospheric research center in Boulder, Colo.
Geerts used King Air in 2008 and 2009, during the early stages of the Wyoming Water Development Commission’s cloud seeding program. Based on the initial seven flights, there were some signs that seeding created more snow.
Even though the data was weak — seven flights aren’t enough to create a conclusion — it generated national interest.
In March, Geerts received the first large grant in the past 25 years from the National Science Foundation for two months of research on cloud seeding over the Sierra Madre Mountains.
“Cloud seeding has been conducted with various cloud seeding companies and states for a long time, under the assumption that it works,” he said. “But there’s very little scientific evidence in the community.”
Most of the action in cloud seeding happens within 3,000 feet of the ground. But aviation rules say planes can’t fly within 2,000 feet of the highest point in an area. Medicine Bow Peak, for example, is 12,000 feet high, which means planes have to stay at 14,000 feet, far too high to measure anything accurately with the old flight-level sensors.
With King Air’s new tools, UW scientists and engineers can stay at the same flight levels but see much closer to the ground.
Geerts remains skeptical of cloud seeding, unwilling to say whether it works without more information.
“I was quite surprised to see what we found in the 2008 and 2009 flights; we saw a pretty clear signal of enhanced snowfall,” he said.
But it could also have been a natural change.
That’s where King Air comes in.
With the plane’s updated probes and sensors, scientists can start answering some of the many questions surrounding clouds.