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Hall, Phill
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Hall, Phill

Flying Above a Hurricane without Leaving the Ground

Phil Hall, a commissioned officer in the NOAA Commissioned Corps, recently became the first non-Department of Defense pilot qualified to fly the Global Hawk. This unmanned aircraft had been used exclusively by the military, but now NOAA and NASA scientists are taking advantage of its unique capabilities to study hurricanes and other atmospheric storm systems. Hall is a native of Dunedin, New Zealand, and a graduate of Purdue University. He holds a bachelor's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. He is the lead author on two technical papers, and holds the rank of commander in the NOAA Commissioned Corps.


Please describe your work on the Global Hawk missions.

"The combination of scientific research and highly complex flight operations is very challenging and rewarding."

I am the deputy project manager for the NASA Global Hawk Project. I am also one of the four full time lead pilots assigned to the project. Besides my flight duties, I am responsible for coordinating the scientific flights with the Federal Aviation Administration. I have been working very closely with the science leads to understand their requirements and turn them in to mission plans. These mission plans go through an extensive process with the aircraft manufacturer, Northrop Grumman Corp. The Northrop Grumman mission planners create the mission plan that is loaded into the aircraft. Additionally, I have worked with the FAA to gain special permission for the aircraft to be able to fly in the National Airspace System. This process was started many months before our first GloPac (Global Hawk Pacific) flights. For each flight, I work with the science team to develop a detailed flight planning package that goes to the FAA for the specific flight.

Why is this project important? How will it benefit our understanding of the atmosphere?

GloPac is a very important science program for the Global Hawk. It’s the first major science project ever conducted on this aircraft. Much of what we are doing is demonstrating its unique capabilities. It can fly up to 65,000 feet, fly for up to 30 hours duration and more than 11,000 nautical miles in range, with a good sized payload. 

Atmospheric scientists, who are very interested in doing research and observations at high altitudes, were able to envision the huge benefits of using the Global Hawk. This was especially the case for science objectives where manned aircraft weren’t practical, such as requirements for extremely long flight durations at high altitudes. The vision of using this tool for science by NASA and NOAA at the NASA Dryden Research Center several years ago is now a reality. We had one flight that flew up over the state of Alaska, up to about 85 degrees north latitude to collect data in the Arctic. This was the first time the Global Hawk has flown this far north.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I especially enjoy the top quality people this project has attracted. The Dryden team and the GloPac science team are top notch. Additionally, the combination of scientific research and highly complex flight operations is very challenging and rewarding. For GloPac, we achieved many firsts for the Global Hawk and that has been exciting to be a part of.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

I am assigned to the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where the Global Hawk is located. We conduct all our flights from Dryden, but in the future we will be deployed in the field with the aircraft and mobile ground control station.

What in your lab could you not live without?

I spend a lot of time training and flying the Global Hawk. Our system includes a newly designed Ground Control System. A lot of attention has been put into the machine-pilot interface. The pilots who use this interface to fly the Global Hawk have worked with the system’s software engineers to make it more like the aviation systems and displays we are familiar with. We feel very fortunate to be flying using this state-of-the-art system.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

If time and cost were not an issue, having a polar orbiting high bandwidth communications satellite system would vastly increase the scientific capabilities of the Global Hawk. Currently, satellite bandwidth to transmit science data is limited and expensive. If a polar-orbiting, high-bandwidth system dedicated for scientific use was available, the ability to conduct world wide research could be greatly increased.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I knew that I was interested in aviation, engineering, and science for as long as I can remember (at least since I was age 5). I was always reading science experiment books and fortunately my parents supported by curiosity and amateur experiments at home.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career  in science?

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleic). Feynman was a brilliant physicist who had many very interesting experiences.

And how about a personal favorite book?

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s a great adventure story.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

Flying an unmanned aircraft was something I never thought I would be involved with in NOAA. I flew the NOAA Twin Otter for about six years, worked in various labs, but didn’t dream of this kind of opportunity. I’m glad that NOAA is pursuing the future with the Global Hawk. 

Do you have an outside hobby?

Backpacking, cycling, and hang gliding.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I think I would have chosen something that would allow me to spend a lot of time outdoors, perhaps a ski instructor or mountain guide.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Richard Feynman.  His curiosity about the world we live and his thinking out of the box are characteristics I admire.

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