Hurricane Hunters fly into danger to keep you safe

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EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The information gathered from inside and around a hurricane is critical to creating forecasts, which can save lives and property. The Hurricane Hunter aircraft were recently on Long Island and Eyewitness News got a personal tour of the planes.

Flying into hurricanes is dangerous, but Hurricane Hunter crews are well-trained.

“They have an incredible safety record but are very courageous because they know the dangers of what they are doing,” said Dr. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center. “They are so good at what they do that they are able to make safety a priority while collecting vital data.”

“If you’re going to hit turbulence – and we do hit turbulence in most of the storms – it’s going to be in the eye wall,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Shannon Hailes explained. “It’s going to be fairly bumpy.”

Hailes said missions typically last 10 hours but some can last as long as 13.  While flying, there are “hours and hours of boredom and then seconds of sheer terror,” Hailes said, half-jokingly.

Air Force pilots fly C-130J Hurricane Hunter Aircraft right into the middle of the hurricanes. The C-130J’s are 97 feet long and nearly 39 feet high, with a wing span of more than 132 feet.

Hailes has been flying into hurricanes since 2003 and said he fell in love with the mission. He said every storm has its own personality and he didn’t experience much turbulence until he flew into Hurricane Rita in 2005.

“When I flew into Rita, I got to know what they were talking about, really big,” he recalled. “The entire time, almost the entire storm was turbulent.  Sometimes you can let the autopilot fly… you couldn’t… it kept kicking off the entire time. So you were hand-flying for 10-12 hours, going through storms the entire time.”

Hurricane Rita currently stands as the 4th strongest hurricane on record in the Atlantic Basin and the strongest hurricane on record in the Gulf of Mexico.

To collect data, Hurricane Hunter pilots start out by flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet, looking to see if a storm will turn into something. If it develops, they’ll fly higher and higher in a pattern.

“We’ll fly about 110 miles,” Hailes said. “We go into the eye and we’ll fly 110 miles out the other side. We’re making big X’s in the sky through a hurricane.”

“You can’t see out of the planes a lot of the times,” he added. “You’re having these 150 mph-155 mph winds coming through. You’ve got sheets and sheets of rain, so you can’ see out of the windshield, so you’re using all your instruments to fly a straight line through it.”

Meteorologists on the flight drop what is called a dropsonde into the hurricane. It’s an instrument pack, which is dropped from the bottom of the aircraft and then it parachutes down into the storm. It measures temperature, wind, humidity and atmospheric pressure. That information is relayed back to the National Hurricane Center and is used to determine the intensity of the storm and what it could do in the future.

“There really is a direct connection between the data collected by these aircraft and your personal safety because the data is beamed directly to the Hurricane Center and help us make more accurate forecasts and issue timely warnings,” Dr. Knabb said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Lt. David Cowan spoke of the G-4 jet he flies around hurricanes.

“This plane primarily flies 41 to 45 thousand feet, about 8-9 hours in duration,” he explained. “This aircraft will usually have 8-10 people on board, including two on-board meteorologists.”

The meteorologists tell the pilots where to go and check the quality of the data. Cowan said there is “a lot of science on board the aircraft.”

The information collected during G-4 flights is not only from dropsondes but also from radar data. That data is used to help forecast models meteorologists use on a daily basis when storms threaten the United States.

Speaking about the U.S. Air Force missions, Cowan said, “we’re able to pair the information together and ultimately figure out how strong the hurricane is going to be and ultimately where it’s going to go.”

Cowan flew the NOAA mission around Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“The biggest thing that I get out of this is the fact that knowing that you’re on top of this animal, this Category 5 hurricane, and you’re at the peak of the pyramid as far as data collection and dissemination goes,” Cowan opined.

“I’m a little different than a lot of people,” Hailes said about the danger of these missions, “but I love the fact that we’re helping all the people out there.”

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