FRESNO, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) — A need to certify NASA’s SOFIA plane for use in New Zealand brought the flying observatory to Fresno Yosemite International for practice autolandings last week.

Flight tracking services saw the NASA branded Boeing 747 touch down on the runway multiple times on Friday, take off again, and circle round for about an hour – until it returned to where it took off from in Palmdale.

The plane is called SOFIA and is essentially a flying observatory. According to NASA, SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy and carries onboard a 106-inch reflecting telescope. NASA officials say flying at an altitude of between 38,000 and 45,000 feet puts SOFIA above 99% of the Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere – providing a clearer view of the skies for those using the equipment on board.

The reason for the autolandings, as NASA officials referred to them, is for testing ahead of the plane’s deployment to New Zealand. NASA officials reveal that Fresno’s airport is home to one of the few instrument landing systems around the state of California that allow aircraft to land in very poor weather conditions – also known as autolanding.

Federal officials say the reason why the autolanding was being done in the daylight (as seen in our Skycam footage in the video player above) was to test out the autolanding system to make sure it is working properly – before SOFIA heads to New Zealand with a full research team on board.

“Normally, the pilots do at least three of these landings, just to ensure the system is behaving properly, and also to give each of them needed practice with the system.  That’s what they were doing ‘looping around’ Fresno on Friday,” said Kevin Rohrer with NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

Fresno is not the only California location where autolandings can be tested; other locations include March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County and Travis Air Force Base in Solano County.

NASA officials add that the tests at Fresno Yosemite International were successful, with automatic landings coming within 10 feet of the runway centerline on all three attempts – certifying the plane for its deployment to New Zealand.