Wednesday, July 9, 2014

NOAA's $9-million aircraft never put to use

Since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was established in 1970, the agency has operated aircraft to aid in the collection of earth observation data to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts; collect data necessary for weather and water forecasts; and help conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. For example, the National Weather Service relies on NOAA aircraft to determine the water content of snow and collect data to support its forecast and warning responsibilities. In contrast, the National Marine Fisheries Service uses NOAA aircraft to count marine mammals and track the location of whale pods.

Flight hours

NOAA’s aircraft fly approximately 3,800 to 5,200 flight hours per year. In fiscal year 2013, NOAA’s nine planes—which range in size from small twin-engine aircraft to large four-engine P-3 Orion aircraft—logged about 3,900 flight hours.

NOAA-owned aircraft are unique in that they have been altered to accommodate a wide range of specialized scientific data collection instruments, some of which are specifically designed for use in NOAA aircraft. For example, NOAA’s Gulfstream IV-SP and P-3 Orion planes can carry a tail doppler radar, which is used to gather information about winds and precipitation within tropical storms and cyclones. These planes are the only government-owned aircraft used for hurricane research to improve the forecasting of a hurricane’s track and intensity. NOAA’s P-3 Orion aircraft also facilitate testing of new scientific instrumentation and data collection strategies. NOAA operates heavy aircraft capable of flying in tropical cyclones; light aircraft that conduct shoreline change assessments, oil spill investigations, snow surveys for spring flood forecasts, and other missions; and unmanned aircraft systems.

Hurricane reconnaissance

Although most hurricane reconnaissance is conducted by Air Force aircraft, NOAA is required to make its P-3 Orion aircraft available if the Air Force is unable to meet the reconnaissance needs posed by severe weather events. One of NOAA’s two operating P-3 Orion planes must be configured and available to conduct reconnaissance each hurricane season from June 1 to November 30, and the other P-3 Orion must be available from July 15 to September 30. During these months, the P-3 Orion planes are generally not available for other uses.

NOAA faces challenges in determining how to optimize the composition of its fleet to obtain the right mix of heavy, light, and unmanned aircraft systems for meeting mission needs. For example, NOAA’s two operational P-3 Orion planes are in high demand for hurricane work. At nearly 40 years of age, these aircraft are also the oldest planes in the fleet. According to NOAA officials, the useful life expectancy for the P-3 Orion aircraft will be another 15 years once re-winging is completed in fiscal year 2017 as planned. However, even with the re-winging, NOAA officials noted that the ongoing operation and maintenance costs of these aircraft may increase. NOAA faces decisions about whether to invest in additional costly service life extensions or replace the two operational P-3 Orions and another aging plane in its fleet, one of its de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft.

The P-3 purchase

NOAA purchased a third P-3 Orion aircraft for approximately $9 million to meet additional agency needs that NOAA officials said could not be met with its two existing P-3 Orion planes. Subsequently, NOAA learned that both of its existing P-3 Orion planes needed new wings sooner than previously expected, and that the newly purchased plane could not become operational without new wings. However, NOAA had not anticipated or planned for these additional expenses and determined that the investment in re-winging the newly acquired P-3 Orion plane was not feasible, according to NOAA officials. The plane was never put to use and NOAA is currently attempting to dispose of it.

Source: Government Accountability Office

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