Commuter Planes Become Weather Stations

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NASA is claiming a 10- to 20-percent improvement in forecasting error with use of airborne weather sensors attached to dozens of Mesaba Airlines planes in an experiment being carried out over the Midwest this winter. The planes, which toil on feeder routes for Northwest Airlines, are equipped to gather temperature, humidity, pressure, wind and icing data that's relayed in real time by satellite to ground stations. On the ground, forecasters get an up-to-the-minute picture of exactly what's going on with the weather and are able to adjust their isobars accordingly. "Initial research shows the airborne sensor makes a 10 to 20 percent improvement in forecast error in numerical models and that's just with temperature," said project leader Taumi Daniels. The sensors are put on commuter flights because they fly through the weather, while bigger equipment generally flies above it. In addition to the weather gear, the sensors have GPS so they can give precise location, time and altitude references for the data stream. The system not only provides better aviation forecasts, it helps make the whole weather system more accurate. Forecasters rely on data from weather balloons to conjure up forecasts and there are about 70 balloons released, twice a day, over the continental U.S. The aircraft sensors are providing an additional 800 reports each day.