Phil Hall is a pilot who travels the world without leaving his office.
“The longest flight I’ve done is about 28 and a half hours,” says the US space agency pilot. “We flew from California almost to the North Pole, did two loops in the Arctic, and came back.”
The plane went up around 10,000 miles and Hall did not move much further than the bathroom and the coffee pot down the hall.
Hall is one of Nasa’s UAV (Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle) pilots who is responsible for flying the Global Hawk drones used by the agency.
These robotic craft are “piloted” by Hall and his colleagues from Nasa's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There, pilots sit in front of banks of large screens that show the view from the nose of the craft in real time and related data about it speed, position, altitude and so on. Their job is to watch over the craft, making occasional course changes and corrections and ensuring the giant robotic craft completes its pre-programmed mission.
UAVs are perhaps best known for their use by the military, but they are increasingly finding civilian uses. In the United States alone the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) predicts that there will be 30,000 drones in the country’s skies in less than 20 years.
Nasa uses them for earth science, flying missions to collect data about the planet. Since the two craft first came into service in 2009, they have flown around the Pacific, cruised over the Arctic and collected data from a host of places previously too dangerous or too remote for other scientific craft flown by Nasa, such as a civilian version of the military U2 craft known as the ER-2.
“One of the limitations of the U2 is its flight duration,” says Hall. “It only has one pilot, who has to get into a very expensive pressurized suit and get into the aircraft. With this aeroplane we can fly for up to 30 hours with the pilots on the ground.”
The Global Hawk – built by Northrop Grumman - is a bulbous-looking craft more commonly flown by the military for high-altitude reconnaissance. The two owned by Nasa are actually the first and sixth planes ever built and were used to prove the concept of the vehicle.
In August this year, the craft will fly over the Atlantic, as the hurricane season goes into full force. The Global Hawk can fly over a weather system for around 15 hours, which will give scientists an unprecedented view of these natural phenomenon.
“During that time we can actually see how the hurricane changes,” says Hall. “It gives us a glimpse into areas of discovery that we haven’t had before.”
The delicate dance of very expensive machinery and the full force of mother nature will be the ultimate test for the planes. But for the pilots, it will just be another day in the office.