For many years the UK's national meteorological service maintained Meteorological Research Flight (MRF) which performed a wide variety of measurements from aircraft. From 1972 to 2001, Meteorological Research Flight (MRF) operated a Hercules C-130 aircraft which was comprehensively equipped to make a wide variety of atmospheric observations including cloud physics, atmospheric radiation, atmospheric dynamics, atmospheric chemistry and remote sensing of both the atmosphere and the surface. Much of the C-130 flying was on detachments away from the home base (originally Farnborough, then later Boscombe Down).

MRF Hercules C-130 As can be seen from its appearance, the C-130 had been heavily modified for this role and was one of the most sophisticated 'flying laboratories' for atmospheric research in the world. The long striped probe on the nose allows sensitive instruments to make measurements, for example of turbulence, in a region outside the influence of the aircraft itself. This also gave the aircraft its nickname of 'Snoopy'. More information about the Aircraft characteristics and instruments are available.

In order to reduce operating costs and provide a platform that better meets the the needs of the whole UK research community, the Met Office™, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the university community established the joint facility named the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) in August 2001, to share the management and operating costs of a new airborne platform.

Initial funding was provided by the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF) to prepare an aircraft and provide a new facility for instruments. The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) managed the contract for the preparation of the aircraft and the University of Cambridge managed the procurement of new instruments.

Original Contract

The contract for the new aircraft, to be designated a BAe-146-301, was placed with BAE Systems in December 2000. The contract provided for at least ten years of operational flying, following the Initial Acceptance of the aircraft in January 2005.

Following the closure of the RJX production line at Woodford, BAE Systems sought to sub-contract the operational phase of the Contract and the sub-contract was awarded to Airtask, which is familiar with specialist operations using aircraft registered for passenger transport.

BAE146-301 Large Atmospheric Research Aircraft G-LUXE

Directflight operated in partnership with Avalon Aero for the provision of aircraft maintenance and modification and engineering, and Cranfield Aerospace for the provision of accommodation, airfield facilities and engineering.

New Contract

In November 2012 the Natural Environment Research Council, MET Office and BAE Systems entered into negotiations to extend the original 10 year contract for a further 5 years, leaving the basic operational infrastructure unchanged. It was also agreed by the parties that the Natutral Environment Research Council would purchase the ARA vehicle from BAE Systems.

Complex negotiations were completed and transfer of ownership of the ARA and signature of a new support contract occurred in March 2014.

The Natural Environment Research Council also made a decision to change the method by which aircraft hangarage and FAAM accomodation was dealt with and these two elements have been removed from the support contract with the Natural Environment Research Council contracting directly with Cranfield University.

The ARA has operated an average of about 400 flying hours per year, visiting most parts of the planet, obtaining data in support of a wide range of UK science.

Early in 2010 the aircraft flew its 500th science mission, with missions averaging around 5 hours each. FAAM now employs 17 full time staff, in addition several supporting staff at Airtask, and diverse groups of scientists at universities and the Met Office who routinely either fly on board the aircraft, or make use of data obtained from the ARA for their research.