Why Did NASA Take On A Douglas DC-8?

The Douglas DC-8 is an incredibly rare aircraft to spot in the skies these days. We reported on a unit performing a cargo service recently, which surprised many readers. However, there is also another one performing critical missions with the one and only NASA. This plane is over five decades old but it is still heavily relied on.

NASA DC-8 Plane
At 157 feet long with a 148-foot wingspan, the NASA DC-8 has a range of 5,400 nautical miles / 6,200 statute miles and can fly at altitudes between 1,000 and 42,000 feet for up to 12 hours. Photo: NASA

A valuable tool

The DC-8 Airborne Science Laboratory flies three primary missions. These are sensor development, satellite sensor verification, and basic research studies of Earth’s surface and atmosphere.

NASA shares that data gathered by the aircraft at flight altitude and by remote sensing have been used for scientific studies in many departments. These include archeology, ecology, geography, hydrology, meteorology, oceanography, volcanology, atmospheric chemistry, soil science, and biology.

Overall, the NASA DC-8-72 is a quadjet that has been highly modified to assist with the Airborne Science mission. The plane was produced in 1969 and acquired by the agency in 1985. According to Planespotters.net, the aircraft arrived at NASA’s facilities in February 1986 with registration N801BN. Quiet Nacelle Corporation held the plane from September 1984 after Alitalia and Braniff International Airways operated it.

DC-8 low approach at Edwards, AFB
The plane can carry 30,000 pounds of scientific items, and it can hold up to 45 experimenters and flight crew members. Photo: NASA

The right equipment

This DC-8 is fitted with a range of sensors and data systems. These can also be customized to particular missions or instruments. Moreover, the aircraft has Iridium and Inmarsat satellite communications ability.

It has one Iridium-based communications system for flight crew communications and another for science team communications. Its multichannel system uploads meteorological data, and also allows for chat messaging, limited data telemetry, and live web updates.

Doppler Aerosol Wind Lidar (DAWN) Instrument
The aircraft has wing pylons for aerosol sampling, a gyro-stabilized pointing and tracking mirror system, a dropsonde delivery tube, multiple reinforced ports, and atmospheric chemistry sampling probes. Photo: NASA

Breaking down the missions

Now we know more about the technology behind the aircraft. So, let’s take a look at the three types of missions.

Sensor Development

As the DC-8 flies in the Earth’s atmosphere, it offers a comparatively cost-effective method to test and validate prototype space shuttle or satellite instruments. This factor offers significant savings during operations.

NASA states:

“Scientists use the DC-8 to develop ideas in instrument technology, test new instruments and modify them if necessary, based on flight results. Potential problems can be corrected before new instruments are launched into space. As a result, flight-proven hardware can lead to substantial savings in time and resources.”

Satellite Sensor Verification

There were near-record levels of chemical ozone destruction in the Arctic in January and February 2005. However, observations from the Aura satellite displayed that other atmospheric processes restored ozone levels to near average. These procedures had blocked high amounts of dangerous UV radiation from hitting Earth’s surface.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

Instruments flown on the DC-8 during NASA’s Polar Aura Validation Experiment in 2005 validated the satellite data. It carried 10 instruments that were used to measure temperature, aerosols, ozone, nitric acid, and other gases, as it flew under Aura while traveling over the polar vortex.

NASA adds:

“Once in orbit, satellite instruments may send back billions of bits of data daily. The DC-8 helps scientists answer ques- tions about the accuracy of data obtained and how to interpret it. For these missions the DC-8 flies under a satellite’s path, using instruments to compile the same information as that collected by the satellite. Through this process, algorithms used to interpret satellite data are evaluated and updated to reflect the results verified by DC-8 instrumentation.”

NASA Testing Airborne Lasers to Touch the Wind
Experiment support technologies include weather radar, an integrated navigation management system, a satellite-based time code generator, a weather satellite receiver system, and a standalone GPS. Photo: NASA

Basic Research Studies

As the 1990s got into full swing, NASA began a comprehensive program to study the Earth as an environmental system. The DC-8 was crucial in this approach.

As NASA puts it:

“The DC-8’s extended range, prolonged flight-duration capability, large payload capacity and laboratory environment make it one of the premier research aircraft available to NASA’s Sci- ence Mission Directorate. Combined with other aircraft, satellites or ground stations, the DC-8 complements and extends the range of any in- strument package, allowing scientists to successfully address today’s planetary issues, including global warming and deforestation.”

There is still work to do for the veteran. Photo: NASA

Recent updates

So, DC-8 has been on several important missions over the years. One of the more recent trips was in September 2019 when it conducted low-level flights over the Los Angeles Basin and San Joaquin Valley to sample air in Central and Southern California.

This task was taken on to help gather information to understand more about the challenges posed by climate change and the part it plays in the causation of wildfires. Additionally, the mission followed a two-month investigation into the life cycles of smoke from fires in the United States.

At the beginning of this year, the DC-8 returned to the skies after over a year of heavy maintenance. Work included an overhaul to all four of its engines. Nonetheless, on January 18th, the plane left for San Antonio, Texas, where it will remain for planned periodic depot maintenance over several months.

After its time in Texas, the DC-8 will start instrument upload in preparation for the Convective Processes Experiment – Aerosols & Winds (CPEX-AW) campaign. This program is a joint effort between NASA and ESA, and it includes a 45-day deployment, which is set for the middle of this summer.

Altogether, the DC-8 is a legend in the game, helping numerous powerhouses such as United Airlines and Delta Air Lines on their way in the jet age. The type may be a thing of the past in the passenger service scene. However, it is great to see it still finding a role in the 2020s.

What are your thoughts about NASA’s DC-8 and its operations? Also, have you managed to somehow spot this unit over the years? Let us know what you think of the aircraft in the comment section.