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Inside NASA's Giant Flying Laboratory

NASA takes a 36-year-old plane to some of the most dangerous skies on Earth, but ex-military pilots say they're careful not to "commit suicide by science."

I'm flying in the cockpit of one of the world's largest flying laboratories, looking out at some storm clouds illuminated by the lights of Lincoln, Nebraska, or maybe Abilene, Kansas. The plan, to crisscross Kansas in straight, parallel lines, has long since changed, as, throughout the night, I hear the pilot call in to air traffic control in Denver and Minneapolis. We're going where the storms go.

A couple dozen times throughout the night, NASA scientists sitting in the plane's main body will send transmissions up front imploring Gregory Slover and co-pilot William Brockett to get a bit closer to the clouds, which cause torrential downpours and lightning storms that are unique to the region and are poorly understood. And each time, Brockett and Slover will make a decision about whether or not to listen to them.

"Our job is to help the scientists do their jobs," Brockett told me. "That said, I don't want to commit suicide by science."

The cockpit. Image: David Osit for Motherboard

The statement is reassuring: Brockett, Slover, and most of the team that keeps the plane in the sky are Air Force vets. Brockett flew hundreds of combat sorties in Vietnam, airlift missions in the Persian Gulf, and flew commercial flights for Pan American for a decade. Flying this plane, the DC-8, is retirement.

Once a month or so, the team flies from wherever they happen to live (the nine-person crew lives all over the west coast) to wherever the mission takes them. In this case, the sweltering plains of Kansas (high temperature the day of the flight: 110 F), where NASA scientists are trying to explain why, exactly, the midwest seems to be hit with such violent storms in the middle of the night (hence our nocturnal flight times), while the rest of the country, and perhaps the world, generally seems to experience lightning storms earlier in the evening.

Image: Jason Koebler

For Brockett and Slover, putzing around the midwest in the DC-8 is routine, as they absent-mindedly discuss the possibility of Greece exiting the European Union, joke with a crew member who had an upset stomach the other night, or talk about where to get a good brew around the nondescript town of Salina, Kansas. But the mere mention of any potential suicide-by-science danger reminds me that we are actively flying in a 46-year-old aircraft with the express intent of getting close to a storm system that, hours before, created a tornado that leveled parts of nearby Hutchinson. It also reminds me of the various papers and waivers I signed to step aboard the DC-8.

Image: David Osit for Motherboard

It was easy to forget. Even though the DC-8 is old, it's a behemoth aircraft, with four massive jet engines capable of hoisting it in the air for 12 hours at a time. On this early, sweltering July day, we flew from 8 PM until about 3 AM, though we were originally scheduled to go a bit longer. And even though we were flying near storms (we never got closer than a few miles from actually flying directly through one), I felt less turbulence than I do on a standard commercial flight, save for one stretch when we ended up underneath a heavy raincloud.

On this mission, called Plains Elevation Convection at Night (PECAN), the plane is outfitted with both upward-and-downward facing lasers that can measure cloud cover and get precise measurements that NASA hopes will eventually be used to create better weather forecasts.

Well, hopefully at least.

Image: David Osit for Motherboard

"I was working on a project a few years ago where we were looking at how turbulence is generated. And you have half the team saying, 'Well, we have it all figured out now,' and then you've got the others who say, 'We haven't even scratched the surface,'" Edward Teets, an atmospheric physicist with NASA, told me. "Anytime you try to deal with weather or climate, there's all these little pieces, and anything we can do to understand more about the processes is going to ultimately be helpful."b

Not all the flights are as smooth as this one has been. On this two-week mission, NASA scientists were studying storm clouds. But, since this plane was acquired by NASA in 1985, it has been used to examine ice melts in Antarctica, polar winds in the Arctic, and pollution around China (last-minute threats from the Chinese government prevented the plane from flying over the mainland). Stickers affixed to a control panel in the plane's main body suggest that the plane has been just about everywhere, from the seemingly mundane (Wisconsin, Maine), to far-flung locales such as Perth, the Palau Islands, Chile, and so-on.

"In Antarctica, you've got these huge mountain ranges, but for that mission, the scientists want to be as close to the ice cover as possible," Slover told me. "So you've got to fly over them and immediately dip back down to the surface. It's really intense flying." Brockett said that, once, particles from a volcanic eruption in Iceland caused a close call.

Image: David Osit for Motherboard

But, in general, the DC-8's missions go off without a hitch, which is nice, because it's a workhorse for the agency. Back in February, the plane was supposed to observe reentry of a European Space Agency satellite (this was canceled because the satellite reentered the atmosphere unexpectedly). In April, it studied solar winds in Greenland. For much of July, the plane and its crew studied nighttime thunderstorms in the midwest. Right now, it's flying high above Puerto Rico attempting to determine how and why ice crystals form on aircraft engines during high-altitude flights. In November, it'll be in Washington attempting to validate data from NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement satellites.

It's a versatile machine. So versatile, in fact, that it seems unlikely NASA is going to replace it with a drone anytime soon. I raised the possibility to both Brockett and Slover, who told me that there are lots of things a manned, flying laboratory can do that a drone can't. Multiple scientists I chatted with told me that there's no real substitute for being able to see the storms that they normally study using models and charts and diagrams with the naked eye, and Brockett said that, for most missions, a drone simply couldn't get the job done.

Image: David Osit for Motherboard

"You've been sitting up here for 15 minutes and you've already heard us call air traffic control a half dozen times," he said. "We keep changing course according to what the scientists want, which isn't something that you're going to be able to do with a drone right away."

The DC-8 is operated out of NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center. Its operations crew doesn't usually change too much from flight to flight—the guys keeping the plane in the air fly on most of the missions. And I get the sense that there is a lot to keep running. The plane was manufactured in 1969 and it looks like it: There are analog communications knobs and power wires running all over one large section of the interior, and, though most of the seats have been ripped out and replaced with computers and scientific instruments, it's clear that the seats come from a time when flying in a plane was comfortable.

Image: David Osit for Motherboard

There are few pre-flight safety checks, no at-airport security (NASA had to give me specific permission to fly, obviously), no seatbelt signs, and no one harassing you to put your phone on airplane mode. You can bring on liquids. The plane is flown by professionals who know what they're doing, for scientists who are deeply invested in what they're researching.

After seven hours of flying in circles and landing in the middle of the night, from exactly the same point we had taken off, I was desperate to pass out.

Those aboard were already asking what time they could fly again tomorrow.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the DC-8 aircraft is operated out of NASA Ames Research Center; in fact it is operated out of NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.