Hurricane hunters

16th September 2005 at 01:00
In 1943, Colonel Joseph B Duckworth was the first to fly into the eye of a hurricane. He did it for a dare. He and his navigator came back alive and he went back into the storm from his Texan airbase with a weatherman in tow. Official flights started the following year.

Today, the National Hurricane Centre runs surveillance and reconnaissance missions from the MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Commander Michele Finn has been flying high altitude hurricane surveillance missions out of the Aircraft Operations Centre at MacDill for four years:

"We fly at 41,000 to 45,000 feet and we have roughly a 3,800 mile nautical range (4,300 miles), which can get us all over" she says.

"We fly very close to the eye of the storm and we feed information about intensity and what the storm is doing right at that very moment. We communicate with the scientists and it is their role to monitor data that we are getting in real time and make any changes that are necessary, and get it back to the hurricane centre."

Surprisingly, planes for these missions don't need any special re-enforcements to cope with the turbulence, but they are turned into flying weather stations.

Commander Finn pilots the Gulf Stream IV, which is kitted out with work stations; temperature, pressure and wind-speed probes; a radar, and a launch chute for measuring instruments, called dropwindsondes.

When a dropwindsonde is deployed a parachute opens to slow it down as it descends through the hurricane to the ocean. As it drops, it sends back information, twice every second, on temperature, wind direction, atmospheric pressure and humidity. On board with the pilots is a meteorologist and a research scientist trying to keep up with and interpret the information coming in.

While they are gathering information that will help to build the bigger picture, the view from the plane itself is not so great. "If you've seen the pictures of the big eye wall, we don't necessarily see that," says Commander Finn. "A lot of time we are completely in the cloud and the hurricane is a lot easier to see on our radar."

Larger planes, flying at lower altitudes are sent on reconnaissance missions into the eye of the storm. These Hurricane Hunter missions fly from MacDill and Keesler and, as well as releasing dropwinsondes, the crews locate the exact centre of the storm and gather information on wind speeds around the eye.

Pilots flew 10 flights, some lasting through the night, tracking the direction and intensity of Hurricane Katrina for several days before she made landfall in Louisiana.

* www.aoc.noaa.gov

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