For four weeks in early 2014, a Gulfstream G550 packed with scientific equipment and outfitted with atmospheric sensors cruised as high as 45,931 feet/14,000 meters in the stratosphere above Europe and North America.
The Gulfstream aircraft, operating under a program directed by the German Aerospace Center, a national research center for aeronautics and space, carried nearly 100 scientists on multiple flights to study what effect natural ice clouds and vapor trails created by commercial air traffic have in limiting global climate forecasts.
A few weeks later, a Gulfstream GV from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research flew over the Southern Alps in New Zealand’s Mackenzie region. Up to 20 times a day, the aircraft took flight to monitor the atmosphere, maintaining altitude at almost 51,000 feet/15,545 meters.
The GV made those flights daily for six weeks, and scientists with the project believe the unprecedented data gathered about high-altitude gravity and wind patterns will provide a better understanding of how those events affect global and local weather systems. The data collected will correlate into more accurate weather forecasts and climate prediction models.
As unusual as the work may be, it represents the capabilities possible once a Gulfstream aircraft becomes part of the company’s Special Missions Program Office. Nearly 200 Gulfstream aircraft in 37 countries serve missions as varied as atmospheric research, tracking pirates on the high seas, search and rescue, medical transport, and shuttling heads of state around the world.
Special Missions program managers coordinate modifications, both external and internal, that better equip a Gulfstream for government, military or scientific use. Special Missions has demonstrated capabilities to design, engineer and build the required aircraft modifications. Much like Lockheed Martin’s famed “Skunk Works,” where aviation legend Kelly Johnson led advanced development projects, Gulfstream’s Savannah, Georgia, facility has a dedicated hangar, nicknamed the “Monster Garage,” where belly pods, hard ports and other alterations take shape for Special Missions aircraft.
Halo in the Sky
Before Germany’s G550 took its first research flight, members of Gulfstream Special Missions helped develop and certify modifications for the High Altitude Long Range Research Aircraft, informally known as HALO. The Gulfstream jet was delivered in 2009.
A 10-foot/3-meter nose boom extends from the aircraft, and underneath the wing, multiple particulate matter sensors are mounted on six hardpoints, each capable of holding 1,000 pounds/454 kilograms. Additional sensors to gauge outside temperature, humidity and radiation dot the top of the G550’s fuselage. Two upper and two lower optical viewing ports were added, which provide scientists additional vantage points and a method for shooting lasers from the cabin into the atmosphere to obtain density readings.
Special Missions also helped develop equipment racks complete with multiple outlets and circuit breakers to power the scientific equipment in the cabin.
Throughout the process of flight testing and certification, Gulfstream test pilots and engineers worked with HALO engineers and staff, says Jeff Schubert, a Special Missions program manager.
“That’s one of the advantages of coming to Gulfstream,” Schubert says. “Any of our customers can come to us with a need, and we will take care of them, regardless of whether they are a new Special Missions customer or one we haven’t seen in years.”
Germany’s atmospheric program has other aircraft at its disposal, but none offers the combination of payload, cruising altitude and range of the G550, says Katrin Witte, project manager for the aerospace center. A G550’s typical range is 6,750 nautical miles/12,501 kilometers at Mach 0.80. That allows the G550 to stay aloft for up to 15 hours, time that can be used for long flights or, in the case of atmospheric research, to remain aloft on station to monitor weather systems as they develop.
“Our other aircraft can hold two to seven racks of our equipment,” Witte says. “With the G550, we can load 15, 17, or 18 racks and we can include a small team of scientists. With the Inmarsat satellite communications option, we can have the team monitor data from the ground, which allows us to use even more space for additional scientific equipment.”
The G550, Witte says, also has much higher altitude performance. Other jets, when loaded, typically only reach an altitude of 39,000 feet/11,887 meters. The G550 can fly to levels of 45,000 to 47,000 feet/ 13,716 to 14,326 meters, she says.
Oliver Brieger, head of flight operations for the aerospace center, offers a similar assessment.
“The range, altitude and endurance of the G550 have enhanced our research capabilities,” Brieger states. “The additional modifications and provisions implemented on HALO make it a very versatile and flexible platform, allowing the scientific community to conduct cutting-edge research for many years to come.”
The G550 is an ideal platform, according to Schubert, because it has so much margin, including extra mission power and wing and fuselage strength.
“It’s a phenomenal aircraft,” he says. “Even with all the added equipment, the HALO still flies like a Gulfstream G550. They’ve never had any issue with the aircraft. It just keeps performing.”
On Missions of Mercy
Twenty-four Gulfstream aircraft are in service as medical transport units, with a concentration in the Middle East. The units are designed to provide optimum comfort while transporting patients for specialized care to major medical centers. Both the Gulfstream G450 and the Gulfstream G550 provide the range and payload capacity to transport patients from the Middle East to medical centers such as London, Munich, New York or Cleveland, Ohio.
Range and payload are only two of the attributes that make Gulfstream aircraft ideally suited for Special Missions assignments. Gulfstream aircraft have long set the industry standard for quiet cabin interiors and for cabins pressurized to a low altitude—6,000 feet/1,829 meters or below. The lower the altitude, whether inside an aircraft or out, the easier it is for a human body to deliver oxygen to its cells. When well-oxygenated, passengers arrive feeling more fresh and alert after a flight of several hours. For a patient, easier respiration is all the more important, as is a quieter cabin.
Gulfstream’s Special Missions programs make it easy to adapt a cabin usually meant for business, comfort and productivity into one also meant for comforting and care.
The VIP/medevac design allows the cabin to convert from a standard executive outfitting to a medevac unit with self-contained medical beds, but other medevac designs have cabins dedicated solely to patient care.
On a typical GV medevac outfitting, the cabin has three beds equipped with oxygen units, ventilators, heart monitors and other equipment. The aircraft carry 26,000 liters of oxygen, which are stored conveniently out of the way in the GV’s baggage area. It’s an easy fit: The GV’s baggage compartment of 226 cubic feet/6.40 cubic meters is one of the largest in the industry.
Gulfstream medevac units offer another exclusive piece of equipment: a powered loading system that operates a platform attached to the stair rails, which lifts a gurney automatically to the cabin entrance. The unit also is capable of raising wheelchairs and other heavy equipment.
“That’s a much safer and more secure method of getting patients on board compared to attendants trying to maneuver a gurney as they climb the airstair,” says Howard McLaren, a Gulfstream Special Missions program manager.
A GV Over the Ocean
Whether it’s a search and rescue operation, locating pirates in international waters or looking for missing aircraft, when the Japan Coast Guard is called into service, a Gulfstream GV is part of the response.
The aircraft has a 19-passenger interior loaded with radar and communications equipment. A belly radome with surveillance radar and a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) System identifies objects in the water at near sea level or as high as 51,000 feet/15,545 meters. The surveillance radar finds a target in the water, then passes its location to the FLIR, which then sights and identifies the object. The system has been used to read ship registrations off the coast of Somalia to identify potentially at-risk container ships and hostile vessels and to help long-range search and rescue operations over a swath of the Indian Ocean.
The Japan Coast Guard has adapted the GV’s low-speed capabilities to slow the aircraft to drop life rafts, flares and other equipment out the baggage door. That isn’t a use typically envisioned for a GV owner, McLaren admits.
“They’ll have a guy in a harness hanging over the open door to drop supplies,” McLaren says. “Members of the Japan Coast Guard are actually pretty fearless.”
Part of that heroism requires the coast guard to respond to a crisis on a moment’s notice, and the Gulfstreams they fly provide superior reliability ratings, McLaren says. The same could be said for two Gulfstream GIVs that serve Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau and five GIVs assigned to Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF).
The bureau uses the aircraft to analyze navigation aides across the country, and when JASDF aircraft aren’t in service for transport or testing, they are used for flight training to keep pilots proficient.
Regardless of what the special mission may be, chances are there is a modified Gulfstream already performing that unique role somewhere in the world. And if not, Gulfstream has a highly skilled team of aeronautical engineers standing by to help make virtually any mission possible.
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