MIAMI – Every year, between June 1 and November 30, the United States enters on the Atlantic Hurricane Season. This is best described as the time when conditions are best for the development of tropical cyclones across the northern Atlantic Ocean.
During this time, the U.S. National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center -based in Miami, Florida, is responsible for the monitoring of conditions and issuing alerts and advisories of any cyclones that develop.
While the National Hurricane Center has many resources at its disposal, two organizations provide “in the storm” information, and these are collectively known as Hurricane Hunters.
The two organizations are the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron -based at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Aircraft Operations Center based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
Both organizations provide aircraft with highly sensitive tracking equipment that allows them to fly through the hurricanes to provide constant data for predicting force, direction and other information regarding the cyclonic systems.
The Air Force provides a Lockheed Hercules C130-J’s for these missions and NOAA provides two Lockheed WP-3D Orion’s named ‘Kermit’ and ‘Miss Piggy’. Also, there’s a Gulfstream G-IV named Gonzo.
As part of Hurricane Preparedness Week, the Hurricane Hunters undertook a Hurricane Awareness Tour along the eastern seaboard of North America from Newfoundland in Canada to Miami in Florida. Airways Magazine was afforded the opportunity to see the operating aircraft up close and personal talk to members of the crew.
NOAA Flight Director, Jack Parrish explained that “Kermit”, that was on display, had recently returned from a year refit to replace its wings and to get new more powerful engines.
“Miss Piggy” was just entering the refit process, so all missions that NOAA will undertake for the next year will be done by “Kermit”. The crew make-up for a typical mission is around 20 people from the pilots to the scientists that are aboard the aircraft.
A typical mission for the aircraft is around 8 – 9 hours although this can be extended to around 11 hours if required. Parrish explained that when flying in and around the storm, atmospheric data such as temperatures and pressures, are collected from a battery of instruments as well as from radiosondes that are dropped through the belly of the aircraft.
These radiosondes send different data up to 4 times a second. The data is collected by a wide array of computers on the aircraft and, while some of it is sent directly back to the National Hurricane Center for their immediate updates, the majority of the data is collated on the aircraft and downloaded once the mission is complete.
When asked about flying the aircraft, the NOAA pilot, Lt. Cdr. Nathan “Shaka” Kahn, described it as a Ford F250 he had on the farm he grew up on: “It would go anywhere, it wasn’t a beauty, but it just did everything that was asked of it and it was reliable”.
Lt. Cdr. Kahn has been flying P-3 Orion’s for over 12 years, initially with the U.S. Navy and since 2015 for NOAA. While we talked to him, it is easy to understand how he loves to fly the P-3 Orion. When asked about actually flying through a storm, he said it is quite possible, with the atmospheric conditions to gain or lose 2,000’ in a matter of seconds.
He also explained that, during a flight in the location of a storm, the Flight Director tells the crew what courses they need to cover. The aircraft captain will fly hands on, the co-pilot is monitoring the instruments and ready to lend a hand on flying if needed, and the flight engineer will be located directly behind the center console of the cockpit responding to the power needs of the 4 engines to maintain a constant speed of 250 knots.
The Air Force Reserve, Lockheed C-130’s, have similar instruments in the body of the aircraft, but not as many stations as the P-3 Orion. While the NOAA P-3 Orion’s are located on the East Coast to respond to storms in the Atlantic, the C-130’s are periodically assigned to monitor storms in the Pacific and can deploy as far as Hawaii to track storms that travel between the mainland and the islands.
For Atlantic storms, both the C-130’s and the NOAA P-3 Orion’s can relocate to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands for mission’s further out into the Atlantic.