© Carla Thomas / Nasa

Flying for science

  • TEXT ANDREAS SPAETH

Research flights pose big challenges for the pilots and scientists departing from Iceland to collect climate data in specially equipped and modified jets

The turboprop engines roar. Iceland, our destination for today, finally comes into view. The twin-engine Dornier 228-212 left Kangerlussuaq Airport on the west coast of Greenland just under four hours ago. Pilots Steffen Gemsa, 44, and Thomas van Marwick, 35, wore oxygen masks for most of the flight. “We don’t have a pressurized cabin, so wearing the masks is compulsory above 3600 meters,” says Gemsa, “but they hinder our movements and make radio communication difficult.” The advantage of unpressurized cabins is that researchers can poke measuring instruments into the atmosphere through small holes in the walls. There’s no restroom, and usually there are no refreshments apart from cookies and water, either, but the men love their job: “These flights aren’t routine at all,” says van Marwick enthusiastically, “we experience something very special every time.”

The DLR (German Aerospace Center) research aircraft has just returned from a six-week campaign – tough going for each of its five-person crews, who have completed dozens of five-hour flights over icy Arctic waters and coastlines. The cabin is full of measuring instruments and has a radar system that can even determine the consistency of snow and ice. The data is intended to help reasearchers understand climate change. The Dornier 228 – built in 1981 – is the same age as copilot van Marwick. “The planes are adapted to requirements, and equipped with the latest technology,” says DLR test pilot Gemsa. “They’re designed to last 30 to 40 years,” he adds, laughing: “We’ll retire together.”

The Dornier 228 at Keflavik Airport: Large openings in the cabin floor make it easy to install special camera equipment. Where the research takes place

The Dornier 228 at Keflavik Airport: Large openings in the cabin floor make it easy to install special camera equipment. Where the research takes place

@ Bragi Pór Jósefsson
Rare sight: View the pilots Wayne Ringelberg (left) and David Fedors …

Rare sight: View the pilots Wayne Ringelberg (left) and David Fedors …

@ Bragi Pór Jósefsson

… and the inside the cabin of their DC-8 research plane

@ Bragi Pór Jósefsson

Upgrade: Sensors for collecting climate data are ofen installed beneath the wings of the research jets

@ Bragi Pór Jósefsson

 Iceland is an important base, and the pilots run into other research crews and planes at Keflavík Airport, among them a twin-engine DLR veteran: “The Dassault Falcon 20 is invincible, it’s like a tank,” says research pilot Philipp Weber, 44. It looks a little funny with its unicorn horn, but the nose boom measures currents without interference from turbulence. Th plane is 41 years old, but Weber still trusts it. “It was designed in the 1950s when calculations weren’t quite as precise, so it’s doubly robust.” When it came onto the market in 1965, it was considered an elegant business jet, and one year later, it even starred in the crime comedy How to Steal a Million alongside Audrey Hepburn.

Its luster has faded, but the Falcon is still famous – among researchers, anyway. When Eyjafjalla­jökull volcano erupted in 2010, it was the only aircraft able to fly over Iceland and collect data despite the high concentrations of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. Oliver Reitebuch, 47, from the DLR Institute for Atmospheric Physics, was on board at the time, and is now back at work over Iceland. The cabin is full of sensitive equipment, including a lidar, which measure winds using laser technology – Reitebuch’s job. As head of the mission, the physicist has flown with the Falcon every year since 1999, his work taking him to Gabon, Niger – and Iceland, which doubles as a base for exploratory flights into the Arctic. “The southern tip of Greenland is the windiest place on earth, and the perfect place to test our new wind-measuring equipment,” he explains. The results will help to enable more precise weather forecasts and more detailed climate models.

A German-American venture: the NASA and DLR teams assembled in front of their aircraft in Keflavík, Iceland

A German-American venture: the NASA and DLR teams assembled in front of their aircraft in Keflavík, Iceland

@ Bragi Pór Jósefsson

 In 2015, Keflavík witnessed a special German-American collaboration: The U.S. space agency NASA sent its McDonnell Douglas DC-8-72 research aircraft to Iceland to help the DLR team with its work. Airplane fans get all sentimental when they see this particular four-engine jet, and YouTube videos of it taking off receive lots and lots of clicks. The DC-8 – along with the Boeing 707, which formerly flew for Lufthansa – is a classic, first-generation jetliner that began operating on scheduled routes in 1959. Today, only 14 of these aircraft are still in operation around the world as cargo planes, and NASA’s jet is the only DC-8 still in active service as a passenger plane. “We’re helping DLR to calibrate the instruments to be installed on an ESA satellite that will later measure wind conditions from space,” explains NASA pilot Wayne Ringelberg, 50, who has completed 10 flights in tandem with the Falcon.

In flight, researchers inside the cabin of the DC-8 use a special tube to eject sensors into the air that independently check the Falcon’s results – and hopefully verify them. Some 40 pilots, researchers and technicians have come to Iceland with three aircraft to fly in the name of science. In the summer, the volcanic island in the North Atlantic becomes a kind of get-together for high-tech veteran aircraft, and they are maintained and modernized here too. After all, a brand-new plane would cost between 30 and 50 million euros – too much for science to be able to afford. “Each aircraft is unique,” says pilot Gemsa, “and cannot be replaced.”