Destination: The storm’s eye

NOAA’s ‘Hurricane Hunters’ at the ready

NOAA hurricane hunter WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV aircraft in flight (undated).

NOAA hurricane hunter WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV aircraft in flight (undated).

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Hurricane season is here, and tropical cyclones will not stop for anyone.  Despite the dangers, NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters are ready to take on the storms.

These highly trained men and women fly directly into storms in sensor-packed planes to gather data forecasters need to monitor hurricanes and predict their path.

Preparing for hurricane season is one of the most important endeavors of the year for NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters.  The risks of flying into and around such powerful storms must be met with an equally high attention to detail.

Preparing for the mission

When Hurricane Hunter pilots aren’t in the air, they are at training facilities sharpening their skills in flight simulators and equipping themselves to handle every situation that may occur while flying a hurricane mission.

In addition, flight crews keep abreast of constantly changing airway policies and codes.  Once a year, a conference is held to update scientists and technicians on any changes to airway regulations that may affect hurricane flight plans.

NOAA's G-IV hurricane hunting plane.

One of NOAA's G-IV hurricane hunting planes is parked on the apron at the Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa in August 2011. NOAA's planes are all named, and this one is affectionately called "Gonzo" after the famed Muppets character.

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Meanwhile, maintenance crews at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla .— home base for NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters since 1992 — pore over each plane, checking its engines, wings, fuselage, flight controls and electronics.

The scientific and technological preparations for hurricane season are just as rigorous. Engineers, technicians, and scientists test computer systems and research instruments, including radars and air-dropped probes. The team also ensures that backups and replacement parts are at the ready.

“Even though hurricane season is only six months long, it takes year-round preparation,” says Lt. j.g. Robert Mitchell, who provides scheduling and logistics support for Hurricane Hunter flights.

NOAA WP-3D named for the Muppets' "Miss Piggy."

In this picture, a NOAA WP-3D named for the Muppets' "Miss Piggy" shows off badges from 80 different tropical cyclones and 36 different countries and territories where it has flown missions. Hurricane Hunter aircraft receive these badges to commemorate the completion of missions.

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NOAA’s array of aircraft equipped for cutting-edge science

NOAA uses two types of aircraft to gather data on hurricanes—the four-engine Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop (P-3), and a twin-engine Gulfstream IV-SP jet  (G-IV). The P-3 flies at low altitudes in the midst of the storm and collects data on wind speed, temperature, and various other storm characteristics. The G-IV flies above and around a hurricane to observe the winds and weather conditions around the storm. This data helps forecasters predict its path, which in turn enables emergency managers to decide which cities and towns should be evacuated.

Both planes are equipped with Doppler radar and expendable probes that are released from the plane into and around a storm. These instruments, called dropsondes, transmit information on atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction back to the plane as they fall to the sea below. This important data is then relayed via satellite to forecasters on the ground.

After a hurricane, NOAA uses another kind of aircraft — a King Air 350 twin-engine turboprop — to assess the damage left in the storm’s wake.  This plane travels to where the hurricane made landfall to photograph the damage from above, providing data that helps direct relief efforts to sites where they are most needed.

The intense preparation by NOAA aviators, ground crew and scientists allows forecasters to stay steps ahead of impending tropical cyclones – all in an effort to alert emergency managers and the general public as soon as possible.

LEARN MORE: Embark on a virtual mission on a NOAA Hurricane Hunter plane in this cool video:

Posted August 8, 2012.
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