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Hurricane Hunter crews risk it all to gather critical storm data

Weather Week

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — The crew aboard Hurricane Hunter planes go to great heights to protect life and property.

There are only 12 airplanes in the world allowed to fly into hurricanes and two of them were recently at Quonset State Airport in North Kingstown. U.S. Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aircraft were on hand to remind people that it’s time to get hurricane-ready.

“This aircraft does both forecast and track information gathering,” Commander Nate Kahn, a NOAA Hurricane Hunter pilot, told Eyewitness News Meteorologist T.J. Del Santo.

NOAA P-3 Orion nicknamed “Kermit” at Quonset State Airport

“Its job is to go right through the middle, through the eyewall, into the center, define that low-level center of circulation and right back out the other side,” Kahn explained while standing beside the NOAA WP-3 nicknamed “Kermit.”

“We dropped a couple thousand feet in a few seconds…”

The aircraft is decorated with 110 stickers—one for each storm its flown into—including Gloria, Bob, Irene and Sandy, all storms which had significant impacts on Southern New England.

Web Extra: Hurricane Hunter Aircraft History »

Kahn has been flying the P-3 Orion since 2015. He said one of his worst flights was during Matthew in 2016.

Stickers on the NOAA Hurricane Hunter depicting each storm it’s been through, including Gloria in 1985.

“We dropped a couple thousand feet in a few seconds and came up a few thousand feet in a couple of seconds,” Kahn recalled. “It was about 3 to 3.5 G load on the airplane during that movement. It was very, very sharp.”

“About a decade ago, the most violent storm I’ve ever been in was Hurricane Dean,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa, who has flown into 90 hurricanes in Air Force Reserve HC-130s.

“Hurricane Dean made landfall as a Category 5.  As it makes landfall, it tends to be more violent for the airplane…a lot more up and down, more tornadoes,” Ragusa added.

Web Extra: Hear from Hurricane Hunter pilots about flying into storms »

The dangers are not lost on the pilots but their training prepares them for the violent nature of these storms. The information they gather is critical. Sensors on the plane collect data horizontally and dropsondes are shot out of both the NOAA and Air Force Hurricane Hunter planes to gather information vertically through the storm.

Air Force Reserve HC-130 at Quonset State Airport

“We get pressure, wind speed, wind direction, temperature and humidity, so all that info is important to see what the structure of the hurricane looks like,” said Ryan Rickert, a NOAA meteorologist who flies in the back of the aircraft.

That data is sent back to the National Hurricane Center and used in computer models to determine how a storm will develop and where it might go.

“Seeing the information we gather really does impact people and could help people,” Kahn said. “It’s a humbling experience.”

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