Travel Story Flying with NASA is out of this world

DC-8 in Fairbanks.
Picture: Geoffrey Thomas
Photo of Geoffrey Thomas

NASA uses Battleship Eight, a custom-fitted DC-8, to test the health of our planet and its atmosphere. 

When the opportunity came from NASA to fly to the wild frontier on my favourite aircraft, the Douglas DC-8...well, who could say no?

We were going north to sample the atmosphere using a host of sensors including laser imaging, detection and ranging (LIDAR) equipment.

And rather than a simple five-hour flight from Palmdale, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, we were going on a nine-and-a-half-hour marathon with four spiral descents en route to test the atmosphere for carbon dioxide and methane.

Flying with NASA is certainly not your normal airline flight.

The adventure began with a two-hour safety briefing...a world away from the three-minute airline safety briefing that no one takes notice of on an airliner.

NASA acquired it in 1985 and fitted new engines that significantly improved its performance.

It has about 54,000 flight hours on the clock — just a fraction of its capability. And what a capability. It is the first commercial jet to break the sound barrier and its rugged construction gives it the claim of being the only jet with no structural lifetime.

And that is the part that NASA loves because it can continually modify the jet for science experiments and there is never a complaint.

Its nickname says it all — the Battleship Eight.

I am on board with one of my co-authors, Aviation Week & Space Technology editor Guy Norris, and we are collecting material for the fourth edition of our series of books on aviation’s impact on the environment.

The cabin doors are closed at 8.30am and Captain Wayne “Ringo” Ringelberg invites me into the cockpit for take-off.

There is a crew of four on the DC-8, with Ringo joined by another Top Gun Timothy Vest, flight engineer Tim Sandon and navigator Stephen Koertge.

In this 1960s vintage plane, start-up procedures are complex and with the NASA oversight takes about 20 minutes. But rather than a direct flight to Fairbanks we are going via Grand Island, Nebraska; Minot, North Dakota; Loon River, Alberta, and Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, in Canada.

For the spiral-down atmosphere tests, the DC-8 needs to descend to about 200m from 11,000m in controlled airspace and thus airports are selected, with the final action by the flight crew being a missed approach and climb back to cruising altitude.

We descend at a sedate 500m per minute at a bank angle of up to 30 degrees. All tests are passed without incident and at remote Norman Wells we are the most exciting thing to happen in some time, according to locals at the airport.

For two weeks, the DC-8 and its team of 19 scientists complete a host of tests related to NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), which is flying numerous remote sensing technologies over Canada and Alaska.

And when this DC-8 is not flying around the Arctic it’s in Antarctica checking on the movement of the ice shelf or flying through thunderstorms or hurricanes to study our ever-changing weather.

Despite her age, NASA has no plans to replace its rugged DC-8. Her designers were the same group that built the most famous plane of all — the DC-3.

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