A modified Mooney aircraft owned by Scientific Aviation, a company that will donate free flight time next year to scientists.
A modified Mooney aircraft in its home airport in Boulder, Colo. The plane is one of three owned by Scientific Aviation, an airborne scientific research company that will be donating free flight time next year to scientists with urgent and innovative projects in the continental United States. Credit: Scientific Aviation

In October 2015, a worker at the Aliso Canyon oil field just north of Los Angeles reported a gas leak. Within days a resident in a Porter Ranch neighborhood complained of the smell of gas to the California Public Utilities Commission.

As days turned to weeks, those living near Aliso Canyon began feeling headaches and nausea.  State officials called on Scientific Aviation, a chemically instrumented airborne research company, to perform sample air quality over Aliso Canyon.

Conley is now on a mission to help prevent surveying delays. And he’s offering the scientific community the full force of his company’s equipment and scientific expertise to help.

The company’s measurements helped to show that by the time the gas leak was contained some 3 months later, at least 97,000 metric tons of methane had escaped into the atmosphere. However, the uncertainty during the early days of the accident troubles Stephen Conley, chief scientist and president of Scientific Aviation.

“It took 2 weeks before the state of California got us down to Aliso Canyon,” he explained “And now the biggest debate about the whole emission is: What happened during the first 2 weeks? Because no one was [directly] measuring it.”

Conley is now on a mission to help prevent such surveying delays. And he’s offering the scientific community the full force of his company’s equipment and scientific expertise to help.

Free Flights, Free Flight Experience

Starting this January, his company will launch a new project called the Scientific Aviation Funding for Innovative Research Experiments (SAFIRE). This project will donate an estimated $100,000 worth of flight time and company expenses to help communities rapidly investigate urgent situations.

In addition to helping with rapid responses after disasters, Conley realized that Scientific Aviation’s experience could help principal investigators (PIs)—particularly those early in their careers—perform airborne research.

“It’s been a constant complaint in the field that unless you have that PI flight experience you just can never get it,” said Conley.

Conley wants to change that, too. So as part of the application process for the free flight time, Scientific Aviation will consider an applicant’s one- or two-page proposal without regard for the researchers’ level of airborne research experience.

A view from the cockpit of a Scientific Aviation flight over the Four Corners region of the San Juan Basin. The flight helped NOAA compare industry-reported emissions with airborne methane and ethane measurements. Credit: Scientific Aviation

“We want to pick ones that are sort of the best sort of bang for the buck,” said Conley. “Like this is going to matter and is reasonably likely to succeed.” Through such experience-blind selection, awards will be able to “take someone that had zero experience as a principal investigator” and give them a chance, he explained. And after their flights, “they’ll have an airborne project under their belt.”

Innovation Required

Scientific Aviation has three Mooney aircraft, each modified to have four air inlets for sampling the atmosphere. Depending on the project, the planes can carry various measurement equipment supplied by Scientific Aviation or the researcher they are working with.

“What I am hoping for is something new,” said Conley. “If someone comes to us with a project about measuring methane out of an oil and gas field, we’ve done that for thousands of hours. That won’t be very innovative, so what I’m really hoping for is that people will come to us with something we haven’t done.”

The scientific community, of course, is not without innovative ideas.

Four inlets for collecting samples and a temperature and humidity probe on the wing of a modified Mooney aircraft. Credit: Scientific Aviation

Xinrong Ren, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, wonders what could be learned if you “fly on air quality alert days to measure air pollution over a city like Baltimore or New York City to understand the mechanisms that form photochemical smog.”  He also thinks that flight time could be used to compare atmospheric measurements with those made on the ground to help improve meteorological models.

Robina Shaheen, an associate project scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said that she would love to collect air samples over Southern California’s urban areas and the Mojave desert to help tease out whether some spikes in ground-level ozone concentrations can originate from intrusion from the stratosphere. She’s also intrigued by getting “high resolution, multiyear atmospheric data before and after fire activity in order to investigate impacts on agriculture, the ecosystem, and human health,” she said.

Support from NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has contracts with Scientific Aviation, is supporting the SAFIRE program by lending, on select flights, NOAA equipment to collect up to 12 discrete air samples per flight that will then be analyzed for free. NOAA’s analysis can supply information that is not available from the measurements that can be made during the flight. That data will then be available to NOAA and the scientists that proposed the project.

Russell Schnell, the deputy director of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory’s Global Monitoring Division, committed the NOAA resources to the project. Schnell explained that some of the obtained data “might be very valuable, some might just be interesting, and some will be useless.” However, small exploratory projects, such as those SAFIRE is supporting, might not have the scientific credibility or have the scale to warrant the time and expense of the proposal process for an organization like NOAA, he explained.

“If someone has done the homework and it is a crazy idea that might be right, I want to be a part of that.”

So Scientific Aviation’s donation is giving the scientific community—including NOAA—the opportunity to obtain data they wouldn’t otherwise get. “Someone might come up with a really neat project that we hadn’t thought of,” Schnell added. “If Scientific Aviation will go fly it for you in a rare area that we normally wouldn’t get to, we will get some really new information.”

Currently, they are restricting potential projects to the contiguous United States. Despite these logistical limitations, the sky’s pretty much the limit, Conley explained. “If someone has done the homework and it is a crazy idea that might be right, I want to be a part of that,” he said.

More information on the application process can be found on Scientific Aviation’s web page. To learn about making a flight plan, explore the abilities and limitations of these sorts of projects, and start pitching project ideas in person, visit Scientific Aviation’s booth (number 1411) at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018.

—Bailey Bedford (email: baileybedford42@gmail.com; @BBedfordScience), Science Communication Program Graduate Student, University of California, Santa Cruz


Bedford, B. (2018), Free flight time for projects in atmospheric sciences, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO108965. Published on 31 October 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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