A mountain wave cloud hovers over California’s Owens Valley. This month, a team of scientists, using the advanced HIAPER aircraft and other tools, is launching a field project to learn more about the turbulent rotors that form underneath mountain waves. (Photo courtesy Jay Packer.)
The nation’s newest and most advanced research aircraft will participate in its first major mission March 1 through April 30, when it will study a severe type of atmospheric turbulence that forms near mountains and endangers airplanes. The $81.5 million HIAPER aircraft, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), will fly over treacherous whirlwinds, known as rotors, as they form above California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range.
HIAPER (High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research) will embark on a series of 10-hour flights that will take it from its base at Jefferson County Airport in Colorado to California’s Owens Valley during next month’s Terrain-Induced Rotor Experiment, or T-REX. The aircraft will explore the mountain waves that form over the Sierra Nevada and are associated with the rotors, as well as study the impacts of the waves on atmospheric regions as high as the stratosphere. The research will lead to better prediction of these aviation hazards.
Rotors, which form on the lee side of high, steep mountains beneath the cresting waves of air, have contributed to a number of aircraft accidents, but scientists know little about their structure and evolution. They are common in the Sierras because the area has the steepest topography in the continental United States. Owens Valley sits some 10,000 feet directly below the highest peaks of the adjacent mountains.
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