By Javier Castro Bugarin
Buenos Aires, May 18 (EFE).- Flying the more than 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) separating the Argentine city of Ushuaia and Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States, to study the effects of climate change is the aim of the Patagonia-Alaska project, a non-profit initiative to measure the composition of the atmosphere above the Americas on board an experimental airplane.
The aircraft – built by Argentine pilots Juan Martin Escobar and Guillermo Casamayu, both from the southern province of Chubut – began being put through its preliminary flights in April and will take off, heading north, in July on a journey that will last for 35 days and will cover more than 20 countries in the Western Hemisphere.
“We were going to do the trip, most of all, for fun, but if we could add this scientific project we liked it even more, because it wasn’t only for us but also to take care of the planet in general,” said Escobar, 36, in a videoconference interview with EFE.
The conditions in Argentina Patagonia – a territory which covers 1.7 million square kilometers (some 650,000 square miles) – make it fairly complicated to fly anywhere: the distances between towns are great, there are few airports with fuel and the runways are not in good condition.
Given that situation, Escobar and Casamayu decided to build a small two-seat airplane with a top speed of about 280 kph (175 mph) and a range of about six hours of flying time, characteristics that enable it to make long flights to the northern coastlines of North America without using too much fuel on the way.
“It’s an experimental airplane because it fulfills the condition that at least 51 percent of it was designed, constructed or assembled by its owners, which doesn’t mean that it’s less safe, because we’re relying on the manufacturer’s instructions and the Argentine aeronautical authorities,” said Escobar regarding the plane, the cost of which is “equivalent to a van.”
Building the plane, dubbed the “Correcaminos” (Roadrunner), took seven months, five more than they had expected, but they added “new optics” to it, shifting their project from being just an adventure for two friends to an unprecedented scientific project for Argentina.
That change in plans came after making contact with Slovenia’s Aerosol company, which provided the pilots with a device called an aethalometer and with which measurements of particles in the air currents far above the ground can be measured.
Located behind the seats in the plane, this instrument will take samples of two substances: black carbon, one of the pollutants that causes a significant number of cardiorespiratory illnesses, and carbon dioxide, the well-known greenhouse gas.
“There are no precedents for measurements of black carbon and carbon dioxide along the route we’re taking,” said Escobar, clarifying that the aethalometer will not only allow them to measure the concentration and location of these substances but also help determine their origin, whether that be from human activities, forest fires or the biomass as a whole.
Once all the data has been collected, the two men will hand it over to the National University of Patagonia and Argentina’s National Weather Service (SMN), which will work with the Slovenian firm to prepare scientific publications and contribute climate reports.
“The reality is that it’s our first experience with measurements from an aircraft, and even moreso regarding black carbon, which is an element that is not studied so much around the world and even less in Argentina,” Giselle Marincovich, an atmospheric sciences expert working for the SMN, told EFE.
Despite having racked up barely 100 hours of flight time, the Correcaminos has already flown successfully over the extreme southern portion of the Americas, passing over spectacular spots like the Paine Towers in Chile, the Strait of Magellan, Mount Fitz Roy and the Perito Moreno glacier.
With regard to the flight to Alaska, Escobar said that they will proceed “patiently” and only when weather conditions permit. “We don’t want to fly on instruments, or have any problems,” he emphasized.
“I’ve been flying since I was 17, so I’m well aware of aviation matters. On all flights, you make mistakes and you’re always learning, and so we want to take it really slow and calmly,” he said regarding a project that, besides contributing to the study of climate change, has another aim: proving to kids that science “can be fun.”