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Meet NOAA Corps Cmdr. Phil Hall


The Global Hawk is a new tool NOAA is using to collect vital severe storm and atmospheric data. It flies high, far and wide, giving new meaning to “distance learning.” Find out why.

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Podcast Transcript

NOAA G-IV flight director and meteorologist Jack Parrish

NOAA Corps Cmdr. Phil Hall pilots the unmanned Global Hawk from his desk at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

(Credit: Tony Landis, NASA)

David Hall [Introduction]: Hello, this is David Hall with NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. 

During this hurricane season, you may hear about NOAA’s hurricane hunters.  These highly specialized aircraft, and the men and women who serve on them, play a vital role in gathering data critical to predicting a storm’s path and determining its strength. 

In addition to using these and other proven Earth observation technologies, NOAA is testing new tools for collecting vital information about hurricanes, the atmosphere and our planet. One of those tools is the Global Hawk — a high-flying, long-range jet aircraft that can carry and deploy a wide variety of environmental sensors.

But in this case, the pilot stays on the ground. 

I recently spoke with NOAA Corps Cmdr. Phil Hall, who pilots the unmanned NASA Global Hawk from its base at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

David Hall [Interview]: Commander Hall, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about how NOAA takes advantage of the NASA Global Hawk’s capabilities? And also how this version of the aircraft differs from those used by the U.S. Air Force and Navy?

Cmdr. Philip Hall:
The NASA Global Hawk looks very similar to the Air Force Global Hawks or the Navy aircraft. And the primary difference is the way the payloads [the suite of instruments and equipment carried on board the aircraft] are engineered in the airplane. So for the Air Force system, the major instruments are for surveillance and reconnaissance. And the NASA mission — and for NOAA science also — is a lot different. It’s more environmental, research or satellite validation. So, our payloads change for every campaign.

So, we will change the payloads in and out for every mission and we’ve developed a special network and hardware on the airplane to be able to accommodate just about any kind of payload that you can dream up of for the aircraft.

David Hall:
The Global Hawk recently conducted a mission over the Pacific. Can you tell us more about it?

Cmdr. Philip Hall:
Yeah, I sure can. It was a very … a breakthrough mission for us. One of our new payloads that we’re very excited about is the dropwindsonde system. And most of the manned aircraft that do airborne science, like the NOAA P-3 and the G-4, have an operator that prepares and launches these expendable instruments out in the sky. And for the Global Hawk, we had to basically go back to the drawing board and figure out how to design a system that would automatically deploy these instruments while we flew. This flight was the first flight of its kind. We launched 70 dropsondes, and we flew up between California and the Pacific over a winter storm to help the forecast models.

David Hall:
How does flying this type of plane differ from flying a manned aircraft — the kind most of us are familiar with?

Cmdr. Philip Hall:
Well, that’s a great question. And a lot of people are very curious about how we fly the airplane. And, the way we control the airplane is very similar to operating in auto pilot. We give headings and altitudes. We input that into a flight computer, and then the aircraft takes those commands and flies on those commands. The part of the aircraft which is different is its autonomy. So, it has the ability to take off and do a mission and land with very little pilot interaction.

However, in most cases, as soon as the aircraft takes off, we’re moving the aircraft around to respond to air traffic control or other mission requirements. So, it’s very challenging for me sitting in the ground station, looking at these computer screens and instruments, to visualize where the aircraft is and what it’s doing. You sort of have to put yourself in the place of the aircraft because you’re sitting in a building.

David Hall:
Are there ways to compensate for that?

Cmdr. Philip Hall:
Good question. So, one of the things that we’ve done for our mission over hurricanes is we’ve installed two cameras. One is a very wide angle camera, and one’s a nose camera with low light capability. And that really helps. Because then we get a picture of where we’re flying, what the weather might look like, if there’s cloud layers in the area.

We also have other sensors that we use. We have a storm scope on the airplane to identify areas with lightening. And, we also have a very sensitive accelerometer system that measures vibration. Since we can’t feel the vibration, we can watch this sensor to see if there’s turbulence or anything that we need to be concerned with, with the weather environment that we are flying in.

David Hall:
I understand that you are the first non-Department of Defense pilot qualified to fly the Global Hawk. What sort of training was involved in getting that qualification?

Cmdr. Philip Hall:
Essentially, the training was very similar to a manned aircraft. It was ground school, about two weeks of ground school, to learn all the aircraft systems. And a lot of the systems are very similar to manned aircraft. Of course, the flight computers and the interfaces and how we operate missions are quite a bit different. And, then we actually did a lot of simulations.

David Hall:
So tell us, is flying the aircraft anything like playing a video game?

Cmdr. Philip Hall:
You know, it’s funny [how] people ask that. And, I don’t play a whole lot of video games. I guess I did when I was teenager and I just haven’t lately. It really isn’t [like playing a video game] because there’s a huge amount of gravity and responsibility in operating this aircraft. Not only is it a one-of-a-kind airplane with a whole suite of one-of-a-kind sensors.

It’s also a huge team effort to make anything happen with the airplane. You know, to instrument it, to do all the engineering. It’s more of making sure we are safe, and that we do the right thing. There’s a lot of training that goes on. So I’ve never really thought about it that way at all. That’s a good question.

David Hall:
Commander Hall, thank you for speaking with us.

Cmdr. Philip Hall:
You’re very welcome, David.

David Hall:
That was Commander Phil Hall, talking with us by phone from the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California. Thank you for joining us. Until next time, I’m David Hall.

Posted May 27, 2011 NOAA logo.