When it comes to monitoring and understanding our planet's weather and climate, few organizations are as integral as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict climate, weather, ocean, and coast changes, share that knowledge and information with others, and conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. One key component of their operations is the use of specialized NOAA aircraft. 

At their core, NOAA aircraft are high-tech flying laboratories equipped to provide an unparalleled perspective on the Earth’s atmospheric conditions. Whether they’re flying into the eye of a raging hurricane or collecting oceanic data from above calm waters, NOAA aircraft and their dedicated crews are on the front lines of scientific discovery in the world of climate and weather. 

In this article, we will explore these aircraft's essential role in NOAA's efforts to gather crucial data and enhance our understanding of the Earth's complex atmospheric systems. Whether you’re a weather enthusiast or an aircraft aficionado, this exploration of NOAA aircraft will provide insight into the airborne tools crucial to understanding our weather patterns. 

But first, what do we know about NOAA aircraft? 

As a leading supply chain solution for government aerospace programs, Greenwood Aerospace offers government procurement services to Defense Contractors, U.S. Government Agencies, and Private Contractors needing aircraft parts and accessories, fixed-wing aircraft acquisition and support, and aviation logistics. While we don’t currently supply parts for NOAA aircraft, we specialize in the sustainment of ISR and Special Purpose aircraft. 

Government aircraft are not only our expertise; they’re our special interest. So let’s dig into the incredible technology and missions of NOAA aircraft! 

What are NOAA Aircraft? 

NOAA currently operates a fleet of 9 aircraft designed and equipped to perform various atmospheric and environmental research tasks. These aircraft are used by NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO). They are part of NOAA's broader strategy to monitor and study the Earth's atmosphere, weather systems, and climate patterns. 

These aircraft, including high-altitude jets and hurricane-hunting propeller planes, provide data for weather forecasting and climate modeling, contributing to the prevention of natural disasters and helping industries and communities plan for future conditions. They conduct aerial surveys to monitor wildlife populations, assess the health of marine ecosystems, and track harmful algal blooms, supporting the sustainable use of natural resources. 

NOAA aircraft also play a crucial role in responding to environmental emergencies, such as oil spills or wildfires, facilitating rapid assessment and intervention to mitigate damage. These aircraft are essential for NOAA to preserve our environment, protect public safety, and promote economic stability.

We’ll dive further into the functions of NOAA aircraft, but first: a brief history.

The History of NOAA Aircraft

The origins of NOAA aircraft can be traced back to the early days of weather and atmospheric research. As early as the 1930s, scientists recognized the need for a deeper understanding of the Earth's atmosphere, leading to the development of specialized aircraft capable of collecting vital data. Over the years, NOAA's fleet has evolved and expanded to address the growing need for accurate and comprehensive atmospheric and environmental information.

Here are some key dates and notable events in the long history of NOAA aircraft:

  1. 1937: The Coast and Geodetic Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA, begins using aircraft for aerial photography and surveying tasks.
  2. 1947: The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy conducted the first hurricane-hunting mission, paving the way for future NOAA hurricane research flights.
  3. 1970: NOAA is established as a federal agency, combining the United States Weather Bureau, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Environmental Science Services Administration.
  4. 1976: The Lockheed WP-3D Orion joins NOAA fleet, becoming a workhorse for hurricane and atmospheric research.
  5. 1980s: NOAA aircraft play a pivotal role in groundbreaking research on the El Niño climate pattern.
  6. 1993: NOAA's Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV) aircraft is introduced, enhancing the agency's high-altitude, long-range weather research and reconnaissance capabilities.
  7. 1997-1998: NOAA aircraft participate in the Intensive Observing Period (IOP) of the El Niño Rapid Response Field Campaign, gathering critical data on the effects of the strong El Niño event.
  8. 2005: NOAA aircraft provide valuable data and support during the exceptionally active Atlantic hurricane season, which includes Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history.
  9. 2012: NOAA's WP-3D Orion aircraft are instrumental in monitoring Hurricane Sandy, which caused significant damage along the U.S. East Coast.
  10. 2020: NOAA deploys a variety of aircraft, including the Gulfstream IV-SP, the WP-3D Orion, and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), to study and monitor the record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season.

As our planet faces increasingly complex and pressing environmental challenges, the role of NOAA aircraft in helping us comprehend and address these issues has never been more crucial.

NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion on Tarmac
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Types of NOAA Aircraft

Today, NOAA's fleet includes a variety of aircraft, each designed to address specific research and operational needs. From the versatile and agile Twin Otter to the powerful and sophisticated Gulfstream IV-SP, NOAA aircraft continue to make significant contributions to our understanding of the Earth's atmosphere and environment. 

Let’s take a closer look at each aircraft in the fleet, the incredible technology on board, and their role in NOAA’s mission: 

Lockheed WP-3D Orion: The Hurricane Hunter

The Lockheed WP-3D Orion, fondly known as “hurricane hunter,” is a force to be reckoned with. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates two Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft, nicknamed "Kermit" and "Miss Piggy," that are essential for tropical cyclone research and forecasting. Acquired from the Lockheed production line in the mid-70s, these four-engine turboprops are well-maintained and equipped with unique scientific instruments, radars, and recording systems to measure the atmosphere, earth, and environment.

These aircraft play a significant role in overcoming the limitations of other forecasting tools like radar, satellites, and computer models. They conduct low-altitude data collection missions to fill data gaps that ground-based radar or satellite imagery can't provide. Operating worldwide, they've participated in numerous research experiments and have run from the Arctic Ocean and Alaska to most regions of the U.S. and into the Caribbean.

The WP-3D Orions gather data by deploying expendable probes called GPS dropwindsondes, which parachute to the sea while transmitting pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction data back to the aircraft. Once verified, this data is sent to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center for inclusion into global and hurricane models.

Additionally, the aircraft are equipped with lower fuselage (LF) and tail Doppler radar (TDR) systems, which scan the storm horizontally and vertically to provide an MRI-like view of the storm's structure. They also carry Step Frequency Microwave Radiometers (SFMRs) developed by NOAA that measure wind speed at the ocean surface by calculating radiation emitted by seafoam created by high winds. This information is crucial for storm forecasting at the National Hurricane Center.

Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV): High Altitude Weather Detective

NOAA's Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV) jet is a sophisticated twin-engine aircraft for hurricane forecasting and research. Operated by NOAA Corps officers, civilian engineers, and meteorologists, it flies around and over tropical cyclones to gather detailed data of the surrounding upper atmosphere. With a range of about 4,000 nautical miles and a cruising altitude of 45,000 feet, it offers high-altitude observational coverage essential for understanding upper atmospheric weather systems.

The G-IV also uses GPS dropwindsondes to measure and transmit pressure, temperature, humidity, and GPS Doppler frequency shifts as they descend to Earth. After processing, this data is sent to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center, where it's incorporated into global and hurricane models and provided to forecasters for real-time observations of patterns around the hurricane.

The aircraft also has a Tail Doppler Radar (TDR) mounted at the rear. This 8,000-watt radar system scans the storm structure as the aircraft flies by, generating a multi-layered view of the storm's intensity, akin to the layers in a slice of wedding cake. These images enhance researchers' and forecasters' understanding of the storm, improving forecasting capabilities.

De Havilland Twin Otter (DHC-6): The Versatile Voyager

NOAA's Twin Otters are highly versatile and reliable aircraft known for their short takeoff and landing capabilities, payload capacity, and excellent external visibility. They can operate in even the harshest environments, supporting NOAA's scientific endeavors.

The Twin Otters typically have a crew of two pilots and a cabin that can seat six people with room for smaller scientific equipment. They are recognized for their stability at slower speeds, making them perfect for surveying at speeds between 90-140 knots over the ground. This slower speed capability makes them ideal for data collection missions.

A blue King Air 350CER prepares for takeoff from a rural airport during the day.
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Beechcraft King Air 350CER

NOAA's two Beechcraft King Air 350 CERs are versatile, twin-engine, extended-range turboprop aircraft used primarily for coastal mapping, snow and soil moisture surveys, and emergency response missions. With their extended range capabilities, these aircraft can collect crucial information while remaining airborne for 7 to 8 hours, subject to fuel and payload.

These aircraft are equipped with two large sensor ports capable of supporting a range of remote sensing systems, including:

  • digital cameras
  • multispectral and hyperspectral sensors
  • topographic and bathymetric LIDAR systems
  • gamma radiation detectors. 

The dual-sensor port modification enables the aircraft to collect data simultaneously from multiple sensors, enhancing their sensing capabilities. Optical-grade glass plates in the sensor ports allow the cabin to remain pressurized. However, they can be removed, and the aircraft can be operated unpressurized if necessary for scientific purposes.

With the success of its coastal mapping, emergency response, and aerial survey missions with the King Air 350CER, NOAA procured a second 350CER in 2020 via Textron Aviation to advance its aerospace program.

The Functions of NOAA Aircraft

With the many different goals of NOAA, NOAA aircraft serve various functions, too. 

Two of the most significant areas where this aircraft shines are weather and hurricane monitoring, and in the broader realm of environmental and atmospheric research.

Weather & Hurricanes 

One of the primary functions of NOAA aircraft in weather and hurricanes is their participation in "hurricane hunting" missions. 

NOAA's P-3 Orions and Gulfstream IV-SP are the stars of the hurricane-hunting fleet. The P-3s can fly directly into the storm, penetrating the hurricane's eyewall to collect data from the storm's core. The data collected during these flights include measurements of:

  • wind speed
  • atmospheric pressure
  • humidity
  • temperature

Meanwhile, the Gulfstream IV-SP flies above and around hurricanes, dropping GPS-equipped sensors known as dropsondes that measure the same variables as the P-3s but over a larger area. This data helps to map the environment surrounding the storm, which is crucial for predicting a hurricane’s path and intensity.

This data is transmitted in real-time to the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and other meteorological organizations for analysis. This information is then used to refine weather models, improve forecast accuracy, and issue timely warnings and advisories to protect lives and property.

In addition to collecting data for weather forecasting, NOAA aircraft also support emergency response efforts during and after hurricanes. They provide aerial imagery and mapping services, which help emergency managers assess the extent of damage, identify impacted areas, and prioritize recovery and relief efforts. This real-time information is vital for coordinating an effective response to natural disasters and minimizing their impacts on affected communities.

By flying into the heart of these powerful storms, these planes provide invaluable data and insights that help us better understand extreme weather events, improve our forecasting capabilities, and support emergency response efforts, ultimately saving lives and protecting property.

Supporting Research 

Apart from their crucial role in weather research and hurricane monitoring, NOAA aircraft also contribute significantly to various other research initiatives. These planes are equipped with state-of-the-art technology and instruments that enable them to collect and transmit essential data for a wide range of scientific endeavors. Below, we will explore some of the key research initiatives supported by NOAA aircraft, including: 

  • coastal and aeronautical charting
  • environmental monitoring
  • hydrological research

NOAA aircraft provide aerial support for coastal and aeronautical charting, helping maintain accurate and up-to-date maps and charts essential for safe navigation. Similar to ISR aircraft, these planes, equipped with high-resolution cameras and advanced remote sensing technology, conduct aerial surveys to collect data on coastlines, waterways, and airspace. Updating maps is essential for navigation, environmental management, and research. 

NOAA aircraft are also instrumental in the remote sensing of ecosystems. For example, aerial surveys can identify deforestation areas, monitor coral reefs' health, or track changes in sea ice extent. This information can be used to assess the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, and other environmental pressures on ecosystems.

Another essential function of NOAA aircraft is their support for hydrological research. These planes are equipped with specialized sensors that allow them to collect data on water resources, such as river flow rates, snowpack levels, and groundwater levels. This information is vital for understanding and managing our water resources, particularly in the face of increasing demands and the potential impacts of climate change.

The data collected by these planes helps advance our understanding of the Earth's environment and informs policy decisions to safeguard our planet and its resources for future generations.

The Impact of NOAA Aircraft

With all of this data comes great impact, and the U.S. government can attribute many important breakthroughs to NOAA aircraft that collect it. 

Let’s explore some of the most notable advancements in weather prediction and climate science that have resulted from the data collected by these aircraft. 

Advancements in Weather Prediction

One of the most significant ways that NOAA aircraft have impacted weather prediction is through their hurricane-hunting missions. These planes gather crucial data on storm intensity, structure, and movement by flying directly into hurricanes and tropical storms. This information is then incorporated into weather models, resulting in more precise storm forecasts. 

For example, during the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, NOAA aircraft provided essential data on Hurricane Sandy, contributing to the improved accuracy of forecasts that helped emergency managers and the public prepare for the storm's devastating impacts on the U.S. East Coast.

Furthermore, NOAA aircraft have contributed to understanding other extreme weather events, such as tornadoes, floods, and droughts. For instance, in recent years NOAA aircraft have been deployed to study severe thunderstorms in the Great Plains, helping researchers better understand the processes that lead to the formation of tornadoes. This research could improve tornado warning systems and ultimately save lives.

Contributions to Climate Science

One of the ways NOAA aircraft contribute to climate science is by studying the composition and dynamics of the Earth's atmosphere. These planes are equipped with advanced sensors that can measure trace gasses, aerosols, and other atmospheric constituents, providing invaluable data for understanding the complex interactions that drive climate change. For example, NOAA aircraft have been involved in research on the role of greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide and methane, in global warming, which has led to a more comprehensive understanding of the factors contributing to climate change.

In addition to studying the atmosphere, NOAA aircraft also help track long-term weather patterns and trends. By collecting data on temperature, precipitation, and other meteorological variables over extended periods, these planes contribute to developing climate models that can simulate past, present, and future climate conditions. This information is essential for identifying trends and understanding the potential impacts of climate change on various aspects of our environment, including ecosystems, agriculture, water resources, and human health.

Learn More About Specialty Aircraft With Greenwood Aerospace

Aircraft have come a long way from the Wright Brothers, and there’s so much to learn about the technological advancements and pure flying power they offer. As aerospace experts, we’re sharing our insights on everything from the history of army aviation units to the details on the Beechcraft’s C-12 Huron. You can find more interesting tidbits on our blog.  

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