Two similar aircraft sit next to each other in a Laramie Regional Airport hangar. However, a second look at the instruments strapped to wing pylons and the bulge housing a radar system begin to show the two University of Wyoming planes are different in almost every way.
Donald L. Veal Research Flight Center — named for the atmospheric sciences department’s founder and eventual UW president — houses the UW’s two aircraft. Nearly 20 technicians, mechanics and pilots are on staff to keep everything operating smoothly.
Two Beechcraft King Airs make up the fleet. One is for transporting faculty, staff, administration and UW Board of Trustees members across the state. The other is a highly specialized research plane for atmospheric sciences.
“The research (plane) came first,” chief research pilot Brett Wadsworth said. “That is our reason for being, and the entire organization is able to exist because what the research provides.”
The research craft is vital to the atmospheric sciences department. The department was essentially created around one purchase made in the 1960s — a twin-Beech aircraft, meant for serious research.
“Our department grew up around airborne observations,” flight center director Al Rodi said. “It’ just inconceivable that we wouldn’t have an airplane. It’s not just a sideline for one faculty member — it’s central to the entire department.”
The necessity of the research aircraft brought together a foundation of mechanics, pilots and technicians that transferred their skills to a transportation plane, Wadsworth said. After leasing a plane for years, UW purchased its own in 1980.
In addition to offering safe, fast transportation for UW officials, the transportation plane keeps the three research pilots’ skills at peak performance, Wadsworth said.
“In some ways, it’s like being an athlete,” he said. “Anybody else who requires hand-eye coordination knows, if you don’t practice regularly, your skills degrade. So, the transportation craft allows us to keep our skills at a high level so we’re able to provide transportation — routinely and safely — and go from that role to flying in the research role.”
The UW research plane is unique. While such aircraft were used by several universities in the past, most were consolidated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
Scientists normally use these planes for observations and data collection; however, UW faculty’s needs goes beyond simply collecting atmospheric data.
“If all you’re interested in is observations, you can just go to NCAR,” Rodi said. “But, the way our department has evolved is that our faculty are really involved in the development of techniques and instruments. Our needs go beyond flying with existing equipment. We’re one of the few universities with this kind of capability.”
The newest piece of equipment under development is a large LIDAR system. Similar to radar, a LIDAR uses lasers to gather information.
“This one will be able to measure temperature by shining a light out of an airplane,” Rodi said. “It’ll measure water vapor concentrations and other chemical concentrations and other concentrations. We’re just at the point of installing it on our airplane.”
These new, advanced sensors are important to the atmospheric sciences community, and different researchers and project leaders regularly make use of the university’s aircraft. The aircraft has even been used across the globe, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Finland.
“This LIDAR is quite anticipated by the community, not just people in our department,” he said. “It’s already being requested for projects in the future, even out to 2018.”
These various other groups pay for their time. In fact, about 70 percent of the $2 million in wages and salaries are paid for by contracts and various grants, such as from the National Science Foundation.
Adding a new plane to the fleet is the department’s next goal. If the state approves a loan, the university could purchase a Beechcraft King Air this summer. The model, built in 2010, allows 1,000 pounds more cargo, more electrical power, two extra flight hours worth of fuel and a fuselage 3 feet longer than the current 40-year-old plane.
“We are butting up against what is possible in the current aircraft,” Wadsworth said. “We are already at the max weight and the max electrical load we can support. This (new model) allows growth space.
“With that additional 1,000 pounds, it means more instruments to sample more features of the atmosphere,” he continued. “It comes with more generators to provide extra electrical power for more instruments, and the extra fuel will give us more on-station time or range.”
It would take about three years before everything could be installed and be ready for flight. The current plane will need to be decommissioned in the next five years regardless, so now is the perfect time to purchase a replacement, Rodi said.
If a new plane is acquired, the Atmospheric Sciences Department will continue to do top research important to the field, Wadsworth said.
“My personal opinion is, if this science is important, this is a world-class organization for doing atmospheric research,” he said. “There’s not many like it remaining in the world, and a capability like this to be sitting here in Laramie, Wyoming, is astounding.”