Low-flying airplane to survey UP for USGS geology study

MARQUETTE — Residents and visitors to the central Upper Peninsula may notice a low-flying airplane this spring and summer, but it’s no cause for alarm, officials say.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists will be using the low-flying airplane to conduct a high-resolution airborne survey to study the underlying geology in the Iron Mountain, Escanaba and Marquette regions. The USGS said experienced pilots who have been “specially trained and approved for low-level flying” will be conducting the flights.

The flights will help researchers obtain data that will give the USGS a greater understanding of the region’s geological features, including buried rock types and faults, according to a USGS press release.

The low-flying airplane will be carrying instruments that measure variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, which can help scientists detect the different rock types in the area, as rock types vary in magnetic material content. The data will be used to make maps that depict the geologic structure beneath the surface.

“This study will help the USGS and partnered scientists understand the region’s fundamental geology and tectonic history in much greater detail than is currently known,” Benjamin Drenth, a Denver-based USGS scientist leading the survey, said in a news release.

The instruments that will be carried on the plane don’t pose a health risk to humans or animals because they only make passive measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field, according to the USGS.

Sawyer International Airport Manager Duane DuRay said the plane will be flying at an elevation of 250 feet in unpopulated areas, but will be flown higher, at an elevation of up to 1,000 feet, in populated areas.

The airplane will be flown in a grid pattern, with north-south lines being flown at roughly 500 feet apart. The east-west lines will be flown about 1 mile apart, according to a release from the USGS.

With the low-flying plane travelling in this grid pattern at about 200 miles an hour, it will be a “very noticeable experience,” DuRay says, noting that he wanted to get the word out about the survey because he doesn’t want the public to be confused or alarmed when they observe a low-flying plane that appears to be traveling back and forth over an area.

While the noise from the relatively small plane, a Piper Cheyenne, won’t be “deafening” like a jet plane, it could be a “startling event” if the plane were to fly directly overhead, DuRay says.

The survey has already begun in some outlying areas, which is why DuRay has been working to inform the community.

“They’re working right now out of another location that doesn’t affect us directly,” DuRay said, noting the flights won’t “affect airport or surrounding areas right away.”

The exact timeline for the flights and locations covered in a given time frame are hard to predict though, DuRay said, as the flights are weather dependent and they will need to occur during daylight hours in areas with favorable wind conditions and clear skies.

While the plane, which is under contract to the USGS through EON Geosciences, will be flying in and out of the airport’s general aviation area on a regular basis, it won’t impact airport operations.

“They are very cognizant of other traffic and such, so they will try to be as least impactive as possible,” DuRay said.

With the airplane flying “as many days as they can over the handful of several months,” and going back and forth to the airport for fuel and breaks, the operation will increase the airport’s flight count, he said.

“They help us, because every operation that flies in and out of Sawyer goes on a count for the airport and the more they fly, the more our count goes up, so indirectly, their operation does help us with their daily operations,” DuRay said.

COMMENTS