UM meteorologists get a midair lesson Flying weather spy shares its secrets

September 18, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

The small plane flying in and out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport the last few days had a sinister look, bristling with what appeared to be guns and missiles.

The plane was actually an airborne research lab and the "weapons" were scientific instruments that can measure anything you'd care to know about the weather.

The property of the University of Wyoming, the plane -- a Kingair 200T -- was here to give professors and students of meteorology at the University of Maryland a taste of sophisticated weather science.

On previous missions, the plane has flown into thunderstorms, hurricanes and an occasional dying tornado, taking measurements to figure out how weather works.

Costing as much as $3,500 an hour to fly and operate its four dozen instruments, the plane is an expensive learning tool. Through a $125,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Wyoming is shuttling the plane to six East Coast campuses, including College Park.

The goal is to expose as many students as possible to its capabilities, and gather a little information at the same time.

"It's great to have this opportunity. Otherwise, we couldn't afford to put students up there in a plane like this," said Bruce Doddridge, an atmospheric scientist at College Park.

The twin-engine plane, which can hold only two passengers at a time, made trip after trip around Maryland this week.

On-board computers in the cramped cabin recorded precise measurements of temperature, humidity, wind speed, cloud properties, ozone and a variety of other conditions.

The information will be used by scientists at College Park who are working to fine-tune a computer modeling program that can predict when ozone will reach an unhealthy level. Better known as smog, ozone reached that level 16 times in the Baltimore area this summer, according to state records.

Robert Gersten, a graduate student in meteorology at the University of Maryland, called his brief ride on the plane a success. The information gathered went a huge step beyond the experiments he had done this summer using weather balloons to collect data.

"It's nice to see what people are doing out there in the field," Mr. Gersten said.

"You can read a lot of these reports quoting a lot of numbers" but a paper trail can't compare with first-hand observations, he said.

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