NASA aircraft, technology poised to test deadly flying conditions

Most pilots avoid bad weather but NASA is fashioning a team and a jet to do just the opposite. And on of its first missions is to fly into hazardous weather to study a phenomenon that has caused more than 100 commercial aircraft engines to fail, stall or temporarily lose power, NASA said.

The space agency has snapped up a Navy S-3B Viking jet and outfitted it with commercial satellite communications, global positioning navigation and weather radar systems. Engineers from NASA's Glenn Research Center, Boeing and the Navy have combined forces to transform the S-3B into a state-of-the-art NASA research aircraft installed research equipment racks in what was once the plane's bomb bay. And they gave it a shiny blue-and-white NASA paint job, the agency said.

With these new features, NASA's S-3B Viking is equipped to conduct science and aeronautics missions, such as environmental monitoring, satellite communications testing and aviation safety research. It can fly up to 40,000 feet high and reach speeds faster than 500 miles per hour, which makes it perfect for studying commercial airline safety issues, the agency said.

The S-3B Viking was built from the ground up to handle the Navy's rugged requirement to take off and land on aircraft carrier ships. The Viking was the Navy's primary sub-hunting aircraft and was also touted as an all-weather, highly stable airplane. However it is currently being decommissioned by the Navy in favor of other newer aircraft.

"We were able to capitalize on the decommissioning by acquiring the aircraft directly from the Navy," explained Dr. Rickey Shyne, director of Glenn's Facilities and Test Directorate. "This saved taxpayers millions of dollars compared to the cost of a new aircraft."

As for NASA's S-3B, the agency said this fall it will take off from Puerto Rico to study icing conditions in convective storms, ranging from isolated thunderstorms to tropical storms. In conditions like these, ice crystals have been ingested into aircraft engines causing problems, NASA said.During the flight, research equipment will collect data, such as the size of ice and liquid cloud particles, water content in the clouds, temperature and humidity. Glenn researchers will use this data to develop an engineering standard to test engines.

Glenn has been studying aircraft icing, the leading natural cause of airplane accidents, for 25 years using its Icing Research Tunnel and its Twin Otter research aircraft. Engineers at the center have helped the aviation industry to understand how ice forms in flight and how it affects aircraft performance. They have evaluated de-icing systems and developed new remote-sensing devices that warn pilots before flying into icy conditions.

This mission is part of NASA's Aviation Safety Program, which partners with the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines and the Department of Defense, to reduce the rate of aircraft fatalities. NASA and its partners plan to build test facilities and computer codes that propulsion engineers can use when designing engines, the agency said.

NASA isn't the only government agency looking into weather-related research involving aircraft and dangerous missions. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month announced a $3 million, three-year program that to test the use of unmanned aircraft to measure hurricanes, arctic and Antarctic ice changes and other environmental tasks. The agency said the drone aircraft would be outfitted with special sensors and technology to help NOAA scientists better predict a hurricane's intensity and track, how fast Arctic summer ice will melt, and whether soggy Pacific storms will flood West Coast cities.

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