Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Local pilot helps NASA study Alaska

Flying low over remote country helps document carbon change

Express Staff Writer

Flying low and fast over the Alaskan wilderness, Sun Valley Air pilot Steven Garman documented numerous wilderness scenes from the far north for NASA. Courtesy photo.

Since the first U.S. orbital space shuttle flight in 1981 and scores of others thereafter, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has dazzled the world with photos and videotapes of space-walking astronauts conducting experiments more than 200 miles above the earth while circling the globe at close to 18,000 miles per hour.

In a contrast that's almost primitive by comparison, Wood River Valley professional pilot Steven Garman flew a far different mission for NASA last June that he calls, with grim seriousness, the "toughest flying in my life" in his some 13,000 hours as a professional pilot.

The job required two weeks off from his regular job, and a distinct change of flying style.

As chief pilot of Sun Valley Air, Garman flies a 20,000-plus-pound Lear 60 charter jet at over 500 miles per hour at 41,000 feet.

As the volunteer pilot of a Cessna 185 single-prop plane, Garman had to fly less than 1,000 feet above some of the world's most treacherous wilderness at less than 200 miles per hour. His task was to help chart the carbon content of thousands of miles of Alaskan forests.

Not tough enough?

Add this for good measure: Often for as long as 6 hours per mission during his two-week work for NASA, Garman had to not only keep the aircraft between 500 and 600 feet altitude above ground level as the terrain undulated below him, but he also had to stay within 30 feet on either side of an imaginary track created earlier by satellite orbiting passes. To achieve this, he had five GPS receivers on board plus standard flight instruments—all being monitored constantly while he also manually flew the aircraft. No auto pilot, thank you.

This precision flying enabled a NASA scientist from the Goddard Space Flight Center, Ross Nelson, 56, to sit in the Cessna's rear seat operating sophisticated laser, camera and computer devices to measure the height of trees and vegetation, which was translated into scientific measurements of carbon content in the forests' biomass.

Incredible as it seems, the devices, according to Nelson, took measurements every six inches as Garman flew the aircraft back and forth over predetermined tracks drawn from satellite passes.

Garman the pilot and Nelson the scientist were brought together through LightHawk, a Wyoming-based aviation group whose aircraft and volunteer pilots are dedicated to studying the environment from the air. The Cessna 185 that Garman flew in Alaska was entrusted to him two years ago to keep at Friedman Memorial Airport and make flights in the Rocky Mountain and Northwest states on environmental projects.

Because Nelson used the LightHawk aircraft and volunteer Garman as pilot, NASA saved at least $30,000 and perhaps as much as $50,000 that would've been charged by a commercial aviation firm.

"Steven flew over 400 ground plots and probably over 10,000 satellite LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) pulses," Nelson explained, trying to simplify the highly complex technical character of the two-week Alaska research project.

"I asked a lot of him. He did a heck of a job," Nelson said.

Nelson said NASA is interested in carbon "because we want to measure and monitor global carbon resources to answer such questions as, is the earth pulling carbon out of the air or emitting carbon?"

This, of course, is related to global warming, which Nelson believes is occurring.

As described in a LightHawk report, Garman and Nelson "collected data from the deep green forests and fjords of the Kenai Peninsula, to the barren edge of the continent at Barrow, where hard permafrost keeps melted snow from draining away, pock marking the landscape with boggy lakes and marshes in the summer."

Though Garman took in this spectacle with delight, he also had an earthier view of his work. He said the remoteness of the area they were overflying is frightening.

If the plane crashes, "up there in Alaska, you aren't going to live," he said. At 600 feet altitude, only a few seconds are available to a pilot to find a safe landing spot, if any. Gear on board included stoves and tents and a shotgun—but Garman forgot to bring boots.

Data collected on this Alaska mission will be added to findings of a similar project over Quebec, Canada. Next summer, Nelson said another flight mission would be conducted over Canada's boreal forests.

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