Environmental Engineering Gets Helicopter

The Pratt School of Engineering has purchased a new Bell JetRanger helicopter to give the university and nation a new platform of research sensors to bridge a gap in airborne studies of natural and man-made environmental processes.

The turbine-powered Bell 206B-3, painted in Duke blue with black stripes, arrived June 18 at the Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport, where it is housed with Duke Hospital’s two Life Flight helicopters. Its first mission in July was to gather important atmospheric data above a Duke Forest research site that models the effects extra human-produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have on forest ecosystems.

Professor Roni Avissar, chairman of civil and environmental engineering, directs the helicopter project. He is a qualified helicopter pilot and will serve as copilot and scientific systems manager on the craft’s research missions. Primary pilot on research missions will be Tim Sukow, site manager for CJ Systems Aviation Group, which will maintain and operate the helicopter along with Duke’s Life Flight helicopters

By carrying specialized instruments attached to its nose and in belly pods, the helicopter will be able to perform environmental observations that are missed by high-flying and fast airplanes, satellites, and balloons and sounding rockets. Avissar said such a helicopter platform is currently not available anywhere for research applications.

“The advantage of the helicopter is that it combines a slow sampling speed, needed for many kinds of research, with a long duration at the designated sampling area,” Avissar said. “In addition, a helicopter can fly safely at very low altitudes, and it can operate in remote areas, even from ships, without requiring long transit time.”

The aircraft, which cost $1.3 million, is available to researchers from other universities and institutions. Avissar said several research teams are designing projects to utilize it.

“We consider this helicopter a national asset,” said Pratt Dean Kristina M. Johnson. “We are looking forward to helping researchers across the country use this aircraft, or ‘Helicopter Observation Platform,’ to better monitor and understand the influence of natural and man-made modifications to local landscapes on the environment."

The scientific sensors currently mounted on the craft’s nose include a sonic anemometer to measure very-high frequency, three-dimensional turbulence at low flying speeds; an instrument to measure water and carbon dioxide concentrations; a sensor to measure three-dimensional wind, temperature and moisture content at high flying speeds; and an aerosol counter to sample the air and count the number of aerosols as well as measure their size distribution.

Avissar said these are important meteorological observations that are going to be needed for any scientific mission that will be performed.

Avissar, who is the W. H. Gardner Professor, has focused on land-ocean-atmospheric interactions. He came to Duke in 2001 from Rutgers University, where he was chair of the Departmental of Environmental Sciences and director of the Center for Atmospheric Prediction.

The Bell 206B-3 is a five-seat helicopter powered by a Rolls-Royce jet engine. It is widely used in law enforcement, fire fighting, as a corporate aircraft and by television news crews. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the JetRanger is the nation’s safest single-engine aircraft. Bell is a subsidiary of Textron Inc., of Fort Worth, Texas.