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October Monthly Highlight- Ultralight Airplane Mission

October 29, 2021

On Thursday, October 14, Professor Grant Petty flew the research ultralight airplane on its longest and most ambitious mission to date. With ground support from Jonathan Thom of SSEC and others, Professor Petty flew the ultralight airplane from the Verona airstrip to the Sauk City/Prairie-du-Sac airport 25 miles away. From there, the team attempted the first-ever “real” science measurements by sampling carbon dioxide at low levels—down to about 36 feet at the lowest point—over a nearby agricultural research field managed by the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center.

All measurement and flight data systems worked flawlessly, but strong winds forced the airplane to terminate the mission early and head back home. Altogether, the team logged 2.3 hours of flight time and about 60 miles of distance, which is by far the most yet for the airplane in a single day. While not much usable science data were collected during this first long flight, the group identified several ways to improve the planning and execution of future science flights.

In addition, the team learned a couple of key lessons from the test of the ultralight aircraft. Crosswinds and gusts make landing the ultralight aircraft difficult, meaning that safety criteria must be more stringent. They also discovered that stronger winds resulted in more fuel usage, making it important to bring extra supplies for future flights, and that it is important to consider how terrain looks from the sky.

For a more technical summary of the flight than presented here, Professor Petty wrote an in-depth article detailing how the data were collected. The article also contains plots of the collected CO2, water vapor, and pressure measurements.