IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'Rocked': NASA scientists brave bumpy flights into winter storms

Last weekend’s nor’easter canceled flights, forced power outages and tangled traffic throughout the Northeast. It was the hammering storm researchers had been waiting for.
A P-3 Orion landing at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
A P-3 Orion landing during a storm at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.NASA

Brian Bernth’s government once asked him to fly into combat. On Saturday, it sent him barreling into the maw of a blizzard — in the name of science.  

Last weekend, as a nor’easter dumped more than 30 inches of snow over some New England towns, Bernth, a former Marine corporal who is now a chief of flight operations with NASA, spent more than nine hours darting in and out of the storm in a Lockheed P-3 Orion. 

In the cabin, nine scientists were strapped into their seats, measuring the storm with various instruments. No one had expected a smooth ride, but the journey got surprisingly sporty. 

“We got rocked,” Bernth said, comparing the G-forces the passengers and crew experienced to riding a roller coaster while blindfolded. “Did we have a few people get sick? Yeah.”

The flight was one of more than a dozen piloted for IMPACTS (the Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms), a NASA project to collect data below, above and smack-dab in the center of damaging snowstorms. 

The effort, which involves dozens of scientists and will collect three seasons of data from winter storms, aims to untangle the complex forces behind snowfall, improve weather models and help researchers better measure snow from satellites in space. 

Last weekend’s nor’easter canceled flights, forced power outages and tangled traffic throughout the Northeast. It was the hammering storm researchers had been waiting for. 

“We want the whole gamut, but we really want something like we got over the weekend,” said Lynn McMurdie, a University of Washington research associate professor of atmospheric sciences and the principal investigator for the IMPACTS project. Researchers could fly again Thursday as a storm brings snow to the Midwest

The IMPACTS scientists are trying to understand how, exactly, snow is formed within the powerful storms that form along the Eastern Seaboard. Why does one community get a foot and a half when a neighboring town gets a few inches? 

Snow hardly falls like a blanket. Instead, its distribution is patchwork — uneven and variable. Bands of intense snow often develop within storms, but researchers don’t have a full understanding of how the processes work.

A flight safety brief aboard the P-3 aircraft at Wallops Flight Facility.
A flight safety briefing aboard the P-3 aircraft at Wallops Flight Facility.NASA

“This is the first time to get data inside the cloud, inside the snow bands,” McMurdie said. “We understand quite a bit about winter storms, but we haven’t observed the characteristics of precipitation inside them in the manner we’re doing.” 

Instability, wave motions and cloud-top cooling are among about a dozen processes researchers are evaluating. 

And this intense event — a deepening “bomb” cyclone, sucking moisture out of the Atlantic and mixing it with cold air from Canada — offered an incredible opportunity to see those processes play out from within the tempest. 

“It’s big to us to be able to sample one of these beasts,” McMurdie said. 

Taking the pulse of a “beast” requires a feat of logistics.

On Saturday, NASA and its academic partners flew two planes, operated two mobile radar trucks and released more than a dozen weather balloons to measure this particular storm.

In the days leading up to the storm, scientists and flight crew members scrambled to position each piece. Crews drove mobile radar trucks across the Northeast to get in better position. Pilots were concerned that weather would prevent them from flying the P-3 out of Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, where the plane is based, so they flew it to Ohio with its flight and science crew. 

Meanwhile, the storm kept changing locations in the forecast, which made flight planning a challenge. Once in the air, pilots must coordinate with scientists on the ground and air traffic controllers to stay near the storm but avoid conflicts with other aircraft. 

A NASA P-3 Orion getting ready to depart Wallops to avoid the storm that the aircraft is going to fly into the next day.
A NASA P-3 Orion getting ready to depart Wallops to avoid the storm that the aircraft is going to fly into the next day. NASA

The P-3 Orion, filled with scientists and their instruments, flew laps through the storm at varying altitudes Saturday evening, while researchers measured aspects like temperature, humidity and microphysics of snowflakes. 

“We really get to know the nature of the clouds,” McMurdie said. 

Meanwhile, a pilot in a pressure suit flew a second plane, NASA’s ER-2, at about 65,000 feet. The ER-2 is designed to fly at extreme altitudes and is equipped with remote sensing equipment to scan storms. 

“It’s kind of like having a satellite you can control,” McMurdie said. 

Pilots carefully coordinated the two planes’ routes, so they measured the same parts of the storm. 

Mobile radar trucks sent beams of energy to measure the storm on the ground. Meanwhile, three teams released weather balloons about every two hours to profile temperature, winds, pressure and humidity at different layers of the atmosphere. 

The elements proved challenging. Winds on Saturday were stiff enough to pop a few of the balloons, McMurdie said. A storm surge sent floodwaters racing about halfway up the wheels of one radar truck.

Zipping in and out of a snowstorm is a careful dance for pilots. 

“The funniest thing. You spend your entire career not flying through this stuff. You’re always taught to go around it,” Bernth said. “An aircraft can only take so much.” 

By day’s end, the P-3 had flown for more than nine hours with a flight crew of six. Pilots rotated every few hours to stay fresh. 

Bernth was at the controls for two bouts of severe turbulence, he said. 

“It’s a workout,” said Bernth, who was deployed in support of combat operations seven times as a Marine pilot. “For about half an hour on Saturday night, things slow down for you and you take over.”  

IMPACTS is a five-year project, with three years of flights planned. In 2020, the team got about 10 flights done, McMurdie said. Covid-19 halted last year’s flight plans. So far, the team has flown about five times this year and plans to do another round again next year.

Right now, satellites struggle to predict snowfall. Radar can explain only so much.

Forecast models are based on assumptions, said Will McCarty, a program scientist with NASA’s weather and atmospheric dynamics program. Taking direct measurements will test those assumptions and could enhance future forecasts.  

“The science really does translate to a better understanding of our planet, and that translates to effectively having better forecasts,” McCarty said.