Scientists Try to Make Flights Over Sierra Safer for Pilots

By: Associated Press Wire Reports –
RENO, Nev. (AP) — A scientist at the Reno-based Desert Research Institute is leading a $9 million research project studying wind patterns and air turbulence that pose dangers to aircraft along the Sierra Nevada. More than 60 scientists from around the world are converging on Owens Valley, Calif., to gather new data for the project led by Vanda Grubisic, an associate research professor in DRI’s Atmospheric Sciences Division. The National Science Foundation is providing major funding for the research, intended to help forecasters and pilots better understand treacherous whirlwinds known as rotors.

Rotors have contributed to a number of aircraft accidents, but scientists know little about their structure and evolution, Grubisic said Friday.

Rotors, which form on the lee side of high, steep mountains beneath cresting waves of air, are common in the Sierra because the area has the steepest topography in the continental United States.

“The goal is to help forecasters predict when and where rotors are most likely to occur and the degree of their intensity, as well as the nature of the mountain waves,” Grubisic said.

“Another goal is to advance the understanding of the structure and evolution of rotors in order to improve aviation safety in mountainous terrain, especially since so many people are moving to the West,” she said.

Grubisic noted that more and more airports are being built along the eastern Sierra, including Reno-Tahoe International Airport and Mammoth Airport north of Owens Valley.

Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Naval Research Laboratory and other research institutions from the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and Croatia will be working on the project in Owens Valley through the end of April.

Owens Valley sits some 10,000 feet directly below the highest peaks of the adjacent mountains, which makes it ideal for studying a great vertical range, Grubisic said.

Grubisic and her team will fly at very high altitudes to gather data.

Of three aircraft being used, a University of Wyoming King Air turbo-prop has the most dangerous mission because it will sometimes fly through rotors to collect data.

Plans call for the $81.5 million HIAPER — the nation’s newest and most advanced research aircraft — to fly over rotors as they form above the Sierra. The aircraft, owned by the National Science Foundation, can reach altitudes of 51,000 feet and cruise for 7,000 miles.

“HIAPER’s long-range and high-altitude capabilities allow us to collect crucial new data on the characteristics high up in the atmosphere of atmospheric waves generated by terrain. These are the same waves that are closely linked to rotors near the mountain crest,” Grubisic said.

The research project is the second phase of an effort to explore the structure and evolution of atmospheric rotors and related phenomena in complex terrain.

The initial phase, which took place in Owens Valley in March and April 2004, suggested that rotors are strongly linked to both the structure and evolution of overlying mountain waves and the underlying boundary layer.

The nonprofit Reno-based environmental research institute is part of Nevada’s higher education system.

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