Early last week, Fred Prata and Adam Durant from Nicarnica Aviation and NILU left behind the Oslo winter and travelled over 3000 miles to Sicily for the AVOID (The Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector) flight trials. In this blog Adam describes the first week of work.
The journey involved a stop-over in Rome and was fairly uneventful except for the reluctance of the local taxi drivers to take our fare once they caught sight of the coffin-sized silver case we were carrying (when asked by a baggage handler back at OSL, Fred had answered that it contained his uncle, and for a moment he was taken seriously!).
On arrival at Catania airport the following morning, we drove along the coast for an hour to Calatabiano airstrip, about 20 km northeast of Etna. There we met our colleague Christian Fisher from Fachhochschule Düsseldorf (FHD), Germany, and the pilot, Uwe Post.
Inside the hangar was a somewhat surreal scene of destruction; interspersed among the mangled wreckage of a 1930s era biplane were cases containing tools and scientific instruments. “Engine failure”, said Uwe, “… but it means that we have hangar space!”.
We immediately began to mount AVOID to the wing of the Flight Design CT research aircraft in preparation for the first test fight in a race against the sunset, which marks the end of our flying day.
Etna volcano emits large amounts of gases such as sulphur dioxide, and frequently has explosive eruptions that emit volcanic ash particles to the atmosphere. AVOID simultaneously makes measurements in different regions of the thermal infrared spectrum; in the case of the Etna flights, these measurements are optimised to look both at ash and sulphur dioxide, which can also be distinguished from water clouds.
Adam took the passenger seat for the first three flights, each lasting around 2 hours, during which the aircraft flew a series of trajectories towards Etna’s plume at various heights up to FL120 (~12,000 ft MSL), and then back out over the Ionian Sea. Apart from a focus issue (which was corrected after the initial flight), everything has gone to plan.
Fred took his first flight with AVOID on Sunday, after saying he would never fly in a single-engine aircraft (this one does, however, have a rocket-deployed parachute system in case of engine failure). Uwe also enjoys providing his passengers with a really close view of the active craters, which often comes with a spot of turbulence as the aircraft passes over the summit.
In the coming week flights will be coordinated with measurements at Etna taken from the surface by a team of scientists from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, and also a flight to Stromboli.