Research Aircraft to investigate Air Pollution

  • A team under the leadership of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry (MPIC) wants to find out how the current COVID-19 restrictions are affecting the atmosphere.
  • Two research aircraft will be deployed over the next two weeks. Scientists will measure concentrations of trace gases and pollutants in the air over European metropolitan areas and in flight corridors to North America.

A clear blue sky without contrails↗︎, empty streets and reduced industrial production – a typical day during the COVID-19 crisis. Road and especially air traffic are on very low levels compared to before the pandemic. Air pollution has dropped by 20 to 40 percent, and daily emissions from aircraft have decreased by up to 85 percent.

As part of a wider research project the German research team now wants to benefit from this unusual situation. Scientists from DLR, the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Goethe University Frankfurt, and the research centres at Jülich and Karlsruhe want to use two DLR research aircraft to conduct a globally unique investigation.


DLR’s HALO↗︎ and Falcon↗︎ research aircraft have been equipped with highly specialised instrumentation and will fly over parts of Germany, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In addition, they will fly along the North Atlantic flight tracks (NAT-OTS)↗︎ towards North America.

“DLR is deploying part of its unique research aircraft fleet to exploit an almost unique opportunity. During these missions, the atmosphere will be analysed in a state that could be achieved in the future with sustainable management of human activities. We will observe how the environment changes with the ramp-up of industrial activities. This will give us an entirely new perspective on the anthropogenic influence on Earth’s atmosphere”

Rolf Henke, DLR Executive Board Member, responsible for Aeronautics Research

Emissions from air transport, industry and road traffic in urban areas

With the equipment on board both research aircraft, the scientists are investigating aircraft emissions such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and aerosols at their typical cruising altitude.

By how much have these emissions decreased over Europe and the North Atlantic flight corridors? Approximately 30,000 planes fly across Europe every day, with correspondingly significant emissions. The now reduced air traffic volume will allow more flexible flight routes for the measurements.

In addition, the researchers want to investigate the reduced emission plumes from urban areas and clarify how emissions are distributed at the atmospheric boundary layer. The scientists plan to fly over the Ruhr area and the regions around Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich. Flights over Northern Italy, Paris and London are also planned.

The target is to fly in the atmospheric boundary layer at an altitude of 1’000-2’000 meters (3’000 to 6’000 feet) over metropolitan areas. According to Jos Lelieveld, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry↗︎, ︎emissions from road traffic and industry are concentrated there. He says they would like to find out how much the concentration of typical air pollutants has changed. According to him, the team is the first in the world to implement a measurement campaign of this type and scale.

Very little time to prepare

With only a few weeks notice, two DLR research aircraft – the Falcon 20E and the Gulfstream G550 HALO – had to be prepared for the missions. The preparation work was carried out at the DLR Flight Operations Facility in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich.

Joint flights by Falcon and HALO are planned until mid June. The evaluation and analysis of data will then take several months.

“Numerous instruments had to be installed and adapted, and the aircraft modified for the upcoming missions.”

Burkard Wigger, Head of DLR Flight Experiments↗︎

Photo Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

AviationXpert Crew