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Hurricane Guide

Hurricane hunters in the eye of storm - literally

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 07:29 PM

As it enters the eye wall of Irene, the plane begins to shake and shudder violently, buffeted by the 100 mph winds from the season's first hurricane.

In the cockpit, the flight crew, led by Cmdr. Carl Newman, intently focuses on keeping "Kermit'' – the pet name for one of the two P-3 Orion turboprop planes flying out of MacDill Air Force Base - airborne amid the fury.

For Newman, flying a computer- and technology-laden plane into the heart of a huge hurricane has become routine after 12 years with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"I've made 220 penetrations of eye walls," says Newman, a smile creasing his face. "Every hurricane is different."

While commercial pilots are trained to fly away from severe weather, hurricane hunters make a living flying into it.

"It is a lot of fun flying into weather," Newman says. "I have always been interested in flying and hurricanes. This is the best combination of the two."

While Newman is a veteran of many such flights, not everyone on board the plane today has so much experience. Lt. Cmdr. Scott Price is a former Navy pilot with more than 1,000 hours flying P-3s – none of it in the middle of a Category 2 hurricane.

That's about to change.

 

In the crew cabin, it's just another day at the office.

 

Scientists, meteorologists and technicians monitor screens, watch radar images and check the constant flow of data emanating from sensors on board and dropped from the aircraft, seemingly unfazed by the bouncing and rolling of the plane and the omnipresent rattling of equipment.

"This will help us get a better idea of the structure of the storm," says Sylvie Lorsolo, a NOAA radar scientist who is manning the Doppler radar, which is only found on the P-3. "This will help give us a better forecast."

The information they are gathering will not only help get a better fix on the massive storm, says Lorsolo, but it will also be used in a decade-long study to improve the ability to predict hurricane intensity.

Bill Olney, an electrical technician, has made more than 170 eye wall penetrations. He likens flying the hurricane hunter to riding a roller coaster, though he thinks the former is more exciting.

"It's kind of like Sheikra, only better," says electrical technician Bill Olney, referring to the well-known Busch Gardens roller coaster. "With Sheikra, you know what you are going to get. When you fly into a hurricane, you never know what this will do."

As he speaks, Olney, who lives in Riverview, unwraps a dropsonde, a cardboard cylinder filled with sensors that read water temperature, wind speed, air pressure and humidity. At a preset location, he inserts the device into a white tube, pushes a button and, with a loud whoosh, the device falls out of the aircraft.

The device takes about three minutes to travel the 8,000 feet to the churning waters of the Atlantic, where it shorts out upon impact.

"These things cost $700 each," says Olney. "We'll drop about 20 of them. That may seem like a lot of money, but if we don't get the track right, it could cost billions."

 

As Kermit makes its first pass through the eye wall, about halfway between Turks and Caicos and Hispaniola, Newman points to the water below.

 

"See how calm it is?" he says. That's one way the crew knows they're in the eye wall – it's the calmest part of the storm.

The next two passes come in the darkness.

After the third pass, Ian Sears, a NOAA meteorologist and flight director, notes that the crew can tell the storm, which was a Category 1, is intensifying.

During the first pass, the eye wall, he says, was not well formed and the wind speed was about 80 knots. But by the third pass, things had changed.

"By the third pass, there was a nice-looking eye," he says. "The winds were about 100 knots."

As the plane heads back toward Tampa, Price grins as he takes a break back in the galley.

Newman, Olney and other experienced hurricane flyers say they have been on rides that "rattled kidneys," but this eight-hour flight was not as turbulent as expected.

"I learned a lot on my first time," Price said. "This was great OJT" – military parlance for on the job training.


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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