The ER-2 is a modified version of the U-2S spy plane flown by the U.S. military. According to unclassified NASA reports, the plane can fly at altitudes greater than 70,000 feet (21,300 meters).
For the TCSP mission, scientists placed instruments designed to collect weather datasuch as wind speeds and moisture content in cloudsunder the wings and nose and behind the cockpit.
The plane has a 104-foot (32-meter) wingspan and can fly for more than 10 hours on a full tank of jet fuel at speeds of a little over 460 miles (740 kilometers) an hour, Wright says.
Pilots wear full pressure suits similar to the ones astronauts wear on the space shuttles. The suits provide protection in case cabin pressure is lost at high altitudes.
The plane's tight cockpit allows the pilot to move the yoke and throttle that control the aircraft and push buttons to turn on and off the science experimentsbut not much else.
"There's not a lot of room to move around, particularly with that suit on," Wright said.
During the TCSP mission the ER-2's range allowed the aircraft to fly intoand loiter for several hours inareas above the Atlantic where tropical storms form.
Remote-sensing satellites, by contrast, may only pass over a single spot once every three or four days, Wright said. In that same time frame, the ER-2 can fly three or four ten-hour missions.
At the height of Hurricane Emily, NASA researchers in Costa Rica dispatched Wright in the ER-2. He said the storm was among the most terrifying sights he has ever seen.
Lightning filled the "wall" of the eye of the hurricane, and even though he was at an altitude of 65,000 feet (20,000 meters), it looked like he might get struck.
"That's one of the illusions of flying at night," he said. "The perception of altitude is a bit difficult."
He was able to clear the lightning bolts, but the turbulence at the eye wall was too much.
After the second pass Wright flew a pattern around the eye wall instead as onboard instruments collected details on the storm's vertical structure and precipitation levels.
Edward Zipser, a meteorologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, was a scientist on the TCSP mission.
He says that, while the data collected during Wright's flights will not improve forecasts for this season, it is crucial for hurricane science.
"This is cutting edge research, and cutting edge research in meteorology contributes to basic understanding of the processes that drive hurricanes," Zipser said in an email.
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