Singing ARIA's Praises
ARIA ain't pretty, but it sure has a nose for the space business. ARIA - pronounced Ah-RYE-ah and short for the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft - is an Air Force jet that records telemetry from space vehicles such as the space shuttle and ballistic missiles. It operates in remote regions of the Earth, gathering data that's literally out of this world, and out of reach of land and marine stations.
ARIA possesses a sagging and misshapen nose as its most distinguishing feature, earning it the nicknames "Droop Snoot" and "Snoopy Nose." The bird's bulbous beak is actually a 10-foot radome housing a seven-foot steerable dish antenna. Despite its distinctive appearance, ARIA is an enigma in aviation circles, unrecognizable to even the most avid aircraft buff. You could call it the Air Force's "Plane Doe."
"We've taken it to air shows and people are amazed. It's been around 30 years, and they've never seen it before," said Capt. Chris Miller, an ARIA mission commander. "We're always getting misnamed and misidentified in aircraft books and magazines."
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration unveiled ARIA in 1968 as part of the Apollo program that placed a man on the moon in 1969. NASA and the Air Force developed the electronics aircraft to fill the gaps - the blind spots - in its worldwide tracking and data receiving network.
During lunar missions, ARIA's job was to receive, record and retransmit telemetry data and voice communications between astronauts and Houston control. When NASA halted the Apollo program in December 1972, ARIA had a hand in helping 12 astronauts set foot on the surface of the moon. The crew of ARIA Four were the first to make contact with the astronauts of the ill-fated Apollo 13 after they re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.
"The Apollo 13 astronauts radioed to tell us their 'chutes had deployed and they were OK," said Capt. Todd Efaw, an ARIA mission commander. "But do you think Ron Howard included that detail in his movie? ... Heck, no!"
The initial fleet of ARIAs - eight EC-135N's - were based at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., until transferring to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, in December 1975. In 1982, the Air Force bought eight used Boeing 707-320C's from American Airlines, modifying the jets to the ARIA configuration and dubbing them EC-18B's. The EC-18B, which is larger than the EC-135N, carries a bigger payload and operates on shorter runways, flew its first mission in January 1986 out of Kenya.
ARIA moved again in 1994, relocating to Edwards AFB, Calif., 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert's Antelope Valley. The 452nd Flight Test Squadron manages the airborne telemetry aircraft - four EC-135E's and three EC-18s - as well as the aircrews and officer mission commanders. The 450th Test Squadron provides maintenance personnel and enlisted "prime mission electronic equipment" operators.
A typical instrumentation crew has six to nine enlisted PMEE technicians, a mission commander (an officer) and a flight crew of two pilots, navigator and flight engineer. While on deployments, ARIA teams must be self-sustaining because auxiliary aircraft are rarely sent. Subsequently, six maintenance people - usually three crew chiefs and three specialists - supplement crews.
"We only get one chance at this so we bring extra people and try to fill every seat," said Miller, a 29-year-old Dayton, Ohio, native. "We cram our cargo hold with spare aircraft parts and extra PMEE gear. Our customers don't want to hear an engine's broken, a windshield's cracked or a computer is on the fritz. They want us on time, every time, and we do a pretty good job at it. We have a reliability record of 99.8 percent."
Safeguards also are taken to ensure the 30,000 pounds of sensitive electronics gear on board works when called upon. The enlisted instrumentation technicians spend between one and two years working at a bench before they even begin flight training.
"You're not going to find any Radio Shacks or Motorola outlets on Wake Island," said Efaw, 30, from Shinnston, W.Va. "You're it up there. It's not uncommon to see a guy with a radio open, soldering away, 10 minutes before a launch."
"We go down to depot-level maintenance - fixing the resistors and transistors," said Senior Airman Tom Gray, 23, a communications operator. "If it breaks, we've got to fix it and usually in a hurry.
"It gets really hectic if something goes down," said Gray, a Latrobe, Pa. native. "But after you go through the first few missions, things get easier. You know how things are going to go. The problem is you can never tell how electronic equipment is going to react in certain circumstances. It could be T-minus five and counting, and you're not sure what's wrong with the equipment. You start pulling your hair out. You don't want mission failure to be your fault. Usually, if I sit back and concentrate, I can figure it out. We've got redundancies built in so that if something does go down, we've got a backup. We also do extensive premission calibrations, which keeps equipment failure down."
Before every mission, the 452nd and 450th test squadrons devote three days to calibrating the aircraft's electronic instruments. They perform a final shakedown of the telemetry equipment while en route to the vehicle lift-off coverage area.
Typically, ARIA tracks and records orbital, cruise missile and re-entry missions. During orbital missions, ARIA shadows the path of spacecraft for about 2,000 miles, recording about 9,200 feet of magnetic tape, which equals 15 minutes of data. Selected portions of information oftentimes are retransmitted in real time via UHF satellite to the launching agency so it can monitor the craft's performance.
ARIA also bird-dogs air-to-air and cruise missiles. These flights last longer than most, sometimes requiring five hours of continuous airborne tracking. If a missile accidentally veers off course or malfunctions, mission commanders can steer the device by remote control with an on-board joystick.
For re-entry missions, ARIA traces space vehicles during the last three minutes of flight: from the edge of space to impact. Two EC-18s are equipped with high-speed still and motion picture cameras capable of infrared and spectral photography, which aids in determining vehicle survivability.
"We're insurance," Efaw said. "They won't launch without us. If something goes wrong with a space vehicle, we can tell them what happened. If we're not there, they'll never know. Sure, we might fly 12,000 miles for 15 minutes of data, but that's nothing when you consider some of these satellites cost $800 million."
ARIA crews have supported the space shuttle, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Mariner, Mars Observer, Minuteman, Peacekeeper and Tomahawk launches to name a few.
"We've tracked every single interplanetary probe from Voyager through the Mars Global Surveyor," Efaw said. "Every coastal runway more than 8,000 feet long has probably had an ARIA sitting on it at one time or another."
Efaw said he's visited 19 countries in the past two years, and Tech. Sgt. Jake Brey, a 34-year-old crew chief, has circumnavigated the globe seven times since he joined ARIA in 1983.
"The crew chiefs love the mission," said Brey, who grew up in Edison, Ohio. "The aircraft are very reliable, and the travel is great. When we go on a mission, we're going into international airports instead of military bases."
Over the last 30 years, ARIA crews have sojourned in Pago Pago; Lima, Peru; Auckland, New Zealand; Barbados; Surinam; Dakar, Senegal; New Caledonia; Fiji; Singapore; Athens, Greece; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Abilene, Texas. In February 1996 they performed their first-ever telemetry-gathering flight over Antarctica, flying out of Cape Town, South Africa, to pursue a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
Gray, who has between 30 to 40 missions under his belt, said his favorite stopovers are Melbourne, Australia; and Tahiti and Seychelles islands. "Getting to sightsee, experience different cultures and sample different foods is the greatest part of this job," he said.
"I got to eat boa constrictor and gazelle once on a trip to Gabon [Africa]," Gray said. "They both tasted sort of like chicken."
Brey boasts an equally adventurous palate and has uncovered a disturbing culinary phenomenon on his half-dozen tours of the planet.
"I'm amazed to find that they've got Denny's everywhere," he said.
Technical Sergeant Pat McKenna
Technical Sergeant Mike Moore