Up Close: Cmdr. Carl Newman, Hurricane Hunter Pilot


NOAA Corps Cmdr. Carl Newman.

Veteran pilot and NOAA Corps Cmdr. Carl Newman says the most beautiful storm he’s seen from the air was Hurricane Floyd (1999). Here, he is at the controls of a NOAA WP-3D “hurricane hunter” aircraft.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA.)

With hurricane season still in full swing, it’s a busy time for NOAA’s “hurricane hunter” airplanes.

Based at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla., the hurricane hunters and their crews work around-the-clock to support tropical storm research, reconnaissance and surveillance.

Data collected during hurricanes by these laboratories in the sky — that fly directly in and out of storms — help forecasters predict how intense a hurricane will be and when and where it will make landfall. The aircraft also help hurricane researchers achieve a better understanding of storm processes, which can improve their forecast models.

Veteran WP-3D hurricane hunter pilot and NOAA Corps Officer Cmdr. Carl Newman, who has been flying with NOAA for the past 11 years, takes us behind the scenes and into a hurricane:

Q: What happens on the day of the flight?

The day of the flight, we show up two or three hours prior to takeoff, meet with the scientists and the meteorologists who will be onboard the plane, and receive a pre-flight weather briefing. We talk about the scientific objectives, and from there, we ask whatever questions are relevant: Is the storm intensifying? What altitudes are we going to fly? How near to land will we fly? Are we allowed to turn the aircraft when we are making measurements? Will we “ride out” the severe bumps [turbulence]?

After the pre-flight briefing, we file our flight plan with the FAA and prepare the plane for an on-time takeoff.  Once airborne, we make a beeline for an entry point into the storm, at the right altitude and airspeed, and begin collecting data. There is no time to waste because every minute counts.  The flight can be long — typically eight to nine hours — and we have to do the same flight again 13 hours after landing. Sometimes we repeat this process for four or five days.

NOAA's Gulfstream IV-SP (foreground) and Lockheed WP-3D Orion "hurricane hunter" aircraft.

NOAA's Gulfstream IV-SP (foreground) and Lockheed WP-3D Orion "hurricane hunter" aircraft provide data vital to forecasting, monitoring and understanding tropical storms.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA.)

Q: When you fly through a storm, you drop sensor probes from the aircraft. Can you tell us about those?

The sensor probes are of two different types. One is the bathythermograph. We drop these ocean probes into the water where they descend through the water column to measure temperature at different depths. The oceanographers want to know how much warm water resides below the surface, a factor that directly affects a storm’s intensity.

The other type of instrument is a dropsonde, an airborne instrument that measures air temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind speed and direction as it descends through the air. The key measurements are pressure at the center of the storm and wind speeds throughout. [Editor’s note: Check out this cool video animation of a P-3 hurricane hunter plane as it flies into a storm, dropping probes at various positions.]

Q: What’s it like to fly into a hurricane?

Most people would think that it’s dramatic the entire time. Not true. Most of the time, it’s just uncomfortable. You get a lot of moderate “chop”— or bumps. As expected, we sometimes experience sudden rises and drops, and the plane is often pushed from the left and the right. These dramatic aspects often occur in the rain bands and in the eye wall itself.

The pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator and flight meteorologist work in concert to make sure the aircraft positioned properly and, if we are going through strong turbulence, we try to maintain a window of airspeed between 200 and 220 knots. If you exceed this airspeed, you can overstress the wings. If you go too slow, you stall. So, our goal is to keep the aircraft within that flight window and let the plane climb or descend as necessary; sometimes this can be thousands of feet up and down. That’s the fun part.

New Ocean TODAY video on Hurricane Hunters.

New Ocean TODAY video on Hurricane Hunters.

Video Link (Credit: NOAA.)

Q: Is there a particular storm that stands out in your mind?

The first and most beautiful storm I’ve seen was Hurricane Floyd in 1999. It had the “stadium effect”— that’s when the eye gets cleaned out and you see those beautiful pictures of clouds that go off into infinity. It was a Category 4 or 5 at the time, and I remember flying for six or seven hours in a dark soup of rain and turbulence. When we entered the storm’s eye, we saw one of the most gorgeous views very few people will ever get to see. It was quite profound.

Q: What made you decide to become a hurricane hunter pilot?

I grew up in Miami, and hurricanes were something that we paid a lot of attention to. I remember driving by NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) on Key Biscayne, and I was always fascinated at the idea of the hurricanes and how weather affected us. Being an airplane nut, I spent my young life dreaming of things like that. I became a flight officer with the U.S. Navy,  and when I left naval aviation, I got into the NOAA Corps, where I was immediately placed into the hurricane flight program. I feel very privileged to have been selected.

Posted Oct. 28, 2010 NOAA logo.