Staff fear budget cuts will ground 'Snoopy' aircraft: Airborne laboratory faces funding crisis

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THE FUTURE of 'Snoopy', an RAF Hercules adapted to form an airborne laboratory, looks increasingly uncertain as defence budget cuts bite deep.

The C130 aircraft, named Snoopy because of its 22-foot red and white striped nosepiece, is guaranteed funding only until 1 April 1995, despite world-wide acclaim for its atmospheric research. Its scientific crew fear Snoopy will be grounded beyond that date.

Defence chiefs are expected to rubberstamp the funding decision at a budget meeting on Wednesday. Snoopy will at least have a breathing space - its crew had braced itself for news that the money would run out this Easter.

The aircraft, based at Farnborough, Hampshire, is owned and run as one of the Ministry of Defence's 59-strong RAF Hercules fleet. The Meteorological Office pays for Snoopy's technical crew and equipment at a cost of around pounds 800,000 a year.

Met Office staff take part in numerous international research projects, and it pays its contribution to costs in Swiss francs. The fall in the value of the pound at the end of 1992 left the Met Office overdrawn on its budget by several million pounds - hence the squeeze on Snoopy. Its future could only be guaranteed if currency fluctuations swing the other way.

An RAF spokesman conceded that Snoopy was under review, but no more or less than any other asset as part of a broad assessment of all defence-related projects. 'To say Snoopy faces the axe would be to anticipate the outcome of that review,' he added.

The aircraft came to public attention after a trip to the Gulf during which it flew through the thick, black smoke plumes of the Kuwaiti oil fires - analysing the level of pollutants to help predict their health threat.

By 'sniffing' the air with its extended snout, Snoopy has helped to improve weather forecasting and long-term computer models of climate change. John Pyle, one of Britain's experts on the ozone hole and chairman of the UK Stratospheric Ozone Review Group, said the loss 'would be a tragedy for atmospheric science in this country'.

In a few weeks' time a scientific paper in the journal Nature, produced using data gathered in Snoopy, is expected to help explain why forecasts of global warming have proved wide of the mark - one of the most baffling questions facing atmospheric science. Snoopy's research suggests a second group of man-made pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, is slowing down the warming effect of artificial greenhouse gases.

Many eminent scientists, from the UK and overseas, have written to the Met Office, protesting at Snoopy's threatened demise. A team from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, recently visited the Farnborough group for advice on fitting out a joint US/German Hercules for atmospheric research.

Snoopy flies two or three times a week, clocking up about 500 hours a year. It is booked up for years ahead by research teams from all over the world. In October, Snoopy is due to be the only aircraft taking part in a simulated major nuclear accident. A few kilograms of a chemical compound called perfluorocarbon will be released high over Brittany and its spread around Europe monitored.

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