ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- A Georgia Air National Guard building at Robins is currently serving as a NASA mission control.
Since May 3 NASA has been flying the ER-2, a modified version of the U-2 high-altitude spy plane, on weather reconnaissance missions over North Carolina. From laptops at Robins, a crew of about 15 people preps the pilots and monitors the missions, which will continue until Monday.
The crew is essentially storm chasing in an attempt to get better information about the dynamics of a thunderstorm, which hopefully will lead to better early warnings. The work involves sensors on the ground, a low-altitude plane, the ER-2 and a satellite.
The aim is to get data on developing thunderstorms at every level of the atmosphere, said Chuck Irving, the mission manager. Ground sensors also measure how water from the storm flows into the ground.
What we are trying to do is get into a storm, looking at it from the ground up and looking at it from the top down, he said. From ground to God is what we are looking at.
The crew has been running missions about every other day, generally in conjunction with the presence of a thunderstorm and an overhead satellite.
The ER-2 flies at 65,000 feet, about 12 miles up. The pilot, wearing what essentially is a space suit, breathes oxygen for an hour before takeoff in order to get properly pressurized before flying so high.
Stu Broce, a retired U-2 pilot, was the pilot for a mission Wednesday. He said the missions arent much different from those of the U-2, except he doesnt have to worry about landing in hostile territory if something goes wrong.
This is the last time I get to scratch my face for a while, he said, rubbing his face before putting on the helmet.
The mission was scheduled to last eight hours.
Because of the planes unique design, a chase car follows it down the runway on takeoff and landing. The landing is more important, as a chase car driver drops in behind the plane as it comes down and the driver guides the pilot down. Its necessary because the pilot cant see the runway.
Ordinarily the chase car is a high performance sports car, like a Ford Mustang GT, but the NASA crew has been getting by with the best thing they could find in the Robins motor pool -- a Chevy Malibu.
NASA has just two ER-2s, so its a rare plane to spot. Anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of one probably wont be able to do so on takeoff, unless they work at Robins. Thats because the plane gets high fast once it lifts off.
It might best be spotted coming in for a landing. Pending the weather, Thursday afternoon might be a good time because the plane is expected to land from the north side of the base between 6 and 7 p.m. The plane is expected to take off at noon.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.