The Detroit Post
Thursday, 28 October, 2021

Do Weather Planes Fly Into Hurricanes

Carole Stephens
• Monday, 14 December, 2020
• 10 min read

Whenever a large storm front develops somewhere in the world, air travel gets a bit more complicated than usual. Hurricanes are massive, spanning hundreds or thousands of miles and affecting flights on a regional scale.

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“As far as aviation goes, most tropical systems and hurricanes are, generally, not as tall as traditional thunderstorms,” said meteorologist and pilot James Aydelott. “The tallest convection in a tropical cyclone is usually clustered around the central core of rotation, whether that’s just a low pressure, or in a hurricane, an eye,” he explained.

Photo by Speed KHAN/AFP/Getty Images obvious reasons, no commercial aircraft is ever going to penetrate the eyeball of a hurricane. We leave that distinct honor to the brave men and women on board hurricane-hunter aircraft of the US Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Unlike with many thunderstorms, flights can safely navigate over the top of a hurricane or tropical storm with little impact. “Each storm is different, but down low, near the eye, where the C-130 and P-3 ‘Hurricane Hunter’ flights fly, there is often turbulence,” said Aydelott.

An Allegiance MD-80 operating between Bangor, Maine, and Orlando, Florida, took a shortcut over the top of the hurricane while all other flights went around the edges. “Allegiance Airlines 2237 flew well above Hurricane Florence on Friday, September 14, and was not affected by the storm,” said Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Paul Nakamoto.

“If you needed a diversion for maintenance or medical, your options are a bit more limited, but from a cruise altitude, you have a lot of airports even further on the storm’s fringe to divert toward,” said Aydelott. In July 1943, Duckworth and O'Hair flew a small AT-6 prop plane into the eye of a hurricane with 132 mph winds off the coast of Galveston, Texas .


While the pilot and navigator won highballs at the officer's club after safely returning that day, the prize for science was much more pronounced: The thermometers aboard the plane recorded a 25-degree Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) difference in temperature between the eye of the hurricane and the air circling it. The next year, Navy and Army flights successfully tracked an Atlantic hurricane along the United States' Eastern seaboard.

While these images provide information about the size and direction of a hurricane, there's still plenty of data associated with these meteorological phenomena that can't be culled from photos. Today, most manned flights into hurricanes are undertaken by the Air Force's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (popularly called the Hurricane Hunters) and the NOAA.

The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flies out of Kessler Air Force Base, Miss., and keeps track of Atlantic hurricanes with a flight crew operation of 20 people . These are large, lumbering transport planes, like the C-130, and they don't fly quite as fast as necessary to provide the data needed to truly map the minute-to-minute changes in a hurricane .

The grueling missions can take 8-10 hours, but the forecasts they've enabled have saved lives, helping people evacuate or seek shelter sooner. As Hurricane Laura churned through the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, residents along the Texas and Louisiana coasts prepared for what was predicted to be one of the more severe storms to hit the state in years.

The National Hurricane Center warned that Laura, forecasted to make landfall as a Category 4 storm late Wednesday night into early Thursday morning, could bring heavy rains that would create an “survivable” storm surge along the coast. Much of the information and knowledge that helps forecasters guess the path, strength, and timing of storms like Laura comes from a small fleet of airplanes, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Air Force Reserves, that fly directly into the most severe storms to gather data.

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These elite Hurricane Hunters can spend 8 to 10 hours at a time flying through storms, which contributes to life-saving forecasts that help those in harm's way evacuate or seek shelter while skies are still clear and sunny. Microsoft may earn an Affiliate Commission if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

Microsoft may earn an Affiliate Commission if you purchase something through recommended links in this article. Microsoft may earn an Affiliate Commission if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

Microsoft may earn an Affiliate Commission if you purchase something through recommended links in this article. Manned flights into hurricanes began in 1943 when, on a bet, pilot-trainer Colonel Joseph Duckworth flew a single-engine plane into a category 1 storm near Galveston, Texas.

While modern satellites have improved the ability of meteorologists to detect cyclones before they form, aircraft are able to measure the interior barometric pressure of a hurricane and provide accurate wind speed information–data needed to accurately predict hurricane development and movement. The USAF hurricane hunters fly weather missions in an area midway through the Atlantic Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands, and have on occasion flown into typhoons in the Pacific Ocean and gathered data in winter storms.

The 53d Was hurricane hunters operate ten Lockheed WC-130J aircraft, which fly directly into hurricanes, typically penetrating the hurricane's eye several times per mission at altitudes between 500 feet (150 m) and 10,000 feet (3,000 m). The civilian and NOAA Corps crew members of the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, until recently based at the Aircraft Operations Center at Mandrill AFB, in Tampa, Florida, mainly perform surveillance, research, and reconnaissance with highly instrumented aircraft including airborne Doppler weather radar measurements in both Atlantic and Pacific storms.

They fly two Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft, heavily instrumented flying laboratories modified to take atmospheric and radar measurements within tropical cyclones and winter storms, and a G-IV Gulf stream high-altitude jet above 41,000 feet (12 km) to document upper- and lower-level winds that affect cyclone movement. The computer models that forecast hurricane tracks and intensity mainly use G-IV dropsonde data collected day and night in storms affecting the United States.

In 2011, the cooperation between GFS and the Observatory extended to reconnaissance flights to capture weather data for tropical cyclones over the South China Sea. In September 2016 they introduced the dropsonde system, which collects extra meteorological data on tropical cyclones to enhance the monitoring of typhoons.

When they saw that the Americans were evacuating their AT-6 Texan trainers in the face of the storm, they began questioning the construction of the aircraft. Lead instructor Colonel Joe Duckworth took one of the trainers out and flew it straight into the eye of the storm.

There were no radio transmissions indicating an emergency on board, and search teams could not locate the aircraft or its crew. ^ Aircraft Meteorological Observation for Tropical Cyclones ^ HBO and GFS join forces to introduce dropsonde system ^ Associated Press.

“Storm Patrol Bill Passed to President” Hurricane Archive Retrieved on 2008-06-06. ^ “The 6 lost Hurricane Hunter missions, Part I: the Oct 1, 1945 typhoon” Weather Underground Retrieved: 3 April 2021.

^ “The 6 lost Hurricane Hunter missions, Part II: Typhoon Wilma, 1952” Weather Underground Retrieved: 3 April 2021. ^ “The 6 lost Hurricane Hunter missions, Part III: Typhoon Doris, 1953” Weather Underground Retrieved: 3 April 2021.

^ “The 6 lost Hurricane Hunter missions, Part V: Typhoon Ophelia, 1958” Weather Underground Retrieved: 3 April 2021. Carson, Peter J., The Lockheed Constellation Series, 1982, Air-Britain (Historians) Ltd, Ton bridge, Kent, ISBN 0-85130-100-2.

To my enormous relief, the belly of the Lockheed WP-3 Orion Hurricane Hunter plane known as “Miss Piggy” is quite cozy. Coffee brews in the little galley in the back, where a clutch of scientists and technicians in blue jumpsuits banter about the baseball playoffs, their voices raised above the resonant drone of Miss Piggy's four Allison T56-A-14 turboprop engines.

For the first week of October, this monster Category 4 storm has held the entire southeast coast of the U.S. hostage. The elite team of civilian meteorologists, data technicians, electrical engineers, and officers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Corps (Otherwise known as NOAA, one of the seven U.S. uniformed services) on this flight are known as the Hurricane Hunters.

Manned flights into hurricanes began in 1943 when, on a bet, pilot-trainer Colonel Joseph Duckworth legendarily flew a single engine plane into a category 1 storm near Galveston, Texas. In the 1960s, with the advent of satellite technology, the U.S. armed forces backed off manned missions, but NOAA's Hurricane Research Center argued to continue them.

To amass the most accurate data possible, NOAA believed, humans had to keep flying into the storms. Today, NOAA's hurricane hunter fleet includes two Lockheed P-3s and a Gulf stream IV-SP jet.

The briefing for the Hurricane Matthew flight began at midnight in cavernous Hangar Five at Mandrill's Aircraft Operations Center. It's complex; it's dynamic,” said the lead scientist, Dr. Frank Marks, director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, and one of the world's foremost hurricane experts, before proposing the flight track to the assembled cockpit crew of twenty aviators and scientists.

We'd begin by making a “figure 4,” with the vertical and the horizontal legs crossing at the center of the eye. Then we'd make a series of spokes fanning out from the center in search of maximum winds to test a prototype antenna.

Ian Sears, the Civilian Flight Director, who acts as a liaison between the scientists and the aviators, began to list everything that could go utterly, seriously wrong with this plan: icing at 15,000 ft.; turbulence in convection. I looked around the room as Sears took comments: Everyone exuded both confidence and an unreasonable degree of physical fitness.

Two hours into the flight, the bumps came faster and harder, like driving over a washboard road. Yesterday, a 2 a.m. flight into Matthew while it churned past West Palm Beach, was scrubbed for repairs, costing the Hurricane Hunters irreplaceable data.

Serious electronics arrays, custom fitted by NOAA's fabrication shop, occupy nooks amidships, to crunch incoming gigabytes of data and transmit it to the National Hurricane Center in Miami in real time. One time, Lynch nearly died flying into a nor'Easter when all four engines iced up and failed at once.

Lynch recalls Hugo, back in '89, which followed a similar track and also made landfall in South Carolina as a category 5. With a noticeable increase in turbulence, Miss Piggy nears the disintegrating southern eye wall.

It's time to launch the first “expendable,” an instrument called a dropsonde, which is about the same size and shape as a capsule at a bank's drive-thru, and makes a similar pneumatic whoosh as it shoots out the belly of the P-3. A stable cone parachute (shaped like an inverted pyramid) immediately deploys, slowing the dropsonde's descent to 20 mph.

As the dropsonde floats down through the storm, it transmits data on air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction. The newest addition to the instrument package is an infrared sensor that measures the temperature of the sea right before splashdown.

(Miss Piggy's twin P-3 Kermit is currently up in Jacksonville, Florida, getting a $15 million upgrade.) Each flight contributes more knowledge to the ultimate mission: To know everything that can be known about what Mother Nature can throw at us.

As we judder through the eye wall, Marks, who has 10,000 hours experience flying into horrific storms, is calmly jotting notes as he scrolls through various screens on his computer monitor. In this age of all-seeing satellites and versatile drones, it seems outmoded, if not insane, to send human beings into hurricanes.

As the plane flies toward the coast between the tornado bands, they slowly close in behind us, sealing the escape route. As a civilian, I don't register any of this (I hear about the close call after the fact, safely back on the tarmac in Tampa).

What I do notice is five minutes of unnerving bumps that has me gripping my arm rests and contemplating deploying my state-of-the-art collapsible air sickness bag. In the aftermath, Hurricane Matthew will be remembered foremost as a killer storm that devastated Haiti, where more than a thousand died.

In the U.S., it could've been awful (though the governor was right: six died in Florida, and the death toll in the Southeast climbed to 38, mostly due to flooding in the Carolina's). Beginning with the initial reconnaissance flight on September 27, the Hurricane Hunters flew more than fifty missions into the storm.

But in truth, as Matthew churned like a buzz saw off the central coast of Florida, nobody knew what would happen next. For now, understanding the near-infinite variables of a storm is still “like nailing Jello to a tree,” as head technologist Terry Lynch puts it.

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