Fierce Old Warplane Has a New Mission: Flying Into the Hearts of Thunderstorms

The National Science Foundation provided $10.9 million to convert an old military A-10 Thunderbolt into the world’s most formidable storm-chasing research vessel, outfitted to withstand the lightning, turbulence, and hail that big clouds unleash. “The A-10 was designed to be shot at,” says Paul Smith, an atmospheric scientist at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, who helped acquire the aircraft.
The A-10 will replace the T-28 Trojan, which retired from chasing storms in 2005. It can soar more than eight miles high compared with the T-28’s five, carrying meteorological equipment into the tops of thunderheads where lightning is generated. Optical imagers will use lasers to cast shadows, capturing the motion of rain, hail, and snow. And the A-10 can stay aloft for three hours, three times as long as the T-28, allowing researchers to observe a storm’s full life cycle. The data could improve precipitation forecasts and models of hail formation, ultimately providing more accurate and timely warnings for hurricanes and other severe weather.
But first, the Air Force must reconfigure the A-10 for peacetime duty. The wings will carry instrument pods with sensors to detect wind speed, temperature, and pressure. The 30mm Gatling gun will be removed to make space for computers that analyze sensor readings. To protect the rear engine during extreme precipitation and cold, engineers will install heaters and inflatable bladders that swell to shed ice.
The jet will be especially useful in validating data taken from afar, says Haflidi Jonsson, a chief scientist at the Naval Postgraduate School, which will operate the craft. Today, the only way to probe the depths and heights of thunderheads is with remote instruments, such as satellite cameras. The A-10 will cross-check those readings. “Without some details, people trying to model storms are running blind,” Jonsson says.
Expect an A-10 maiden flight in late 2013.