Storm chasing on the ground has become more popular among the general public in the past 25 years, thanks in part to the popularity of the 1996 movie “Twister.” But above the ground, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hurricane Hunters have been taking high-tech looks into tropical systems since the mid-1970s.
They play an important role in advancing science and saving lives. While satellites can track the movement of hurricanes, Hurricane Hunters allow scientists to sample the storms directly to get the most accurate information about them.
Hurricane Hunters are aircraft that make up part of NOAA’s fleet of highly specialized planes that are used to study the oceans, coasts and atmosphere. The Hurricane Hunters include two Lockheed WP-3D (P-3) Orion four-engine turboprop aircraft, affectionately nicknamed Kermit and Miss Piggy, as well as a Gulfstream IV (G-IV) jet nicknamed Gonzo.
NOAA’s Gulfstream IV-SP, nicknamed Gonzo, takes off from Florida’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, home of the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center.
The P-3s fly into the storms at fairly low altitudes, battling intense winds, blinding rain and turbulence before entering the relative calm of the storm’s eye. They repeat the often grueling process again and again during the course of an eight- to 10-hour mission.
The P-3s deploy instrument clusters called dropsondes. The dropsondes parachute through hurricanes to the ocean surface, sending back data regarding pressure, temperature, humidity and wind. This helps scientists understand the structure of a storm and the winds steering it. Then the scientists plug the data into computer models to help them predict how intense a hurricane may become, in addition to where and when it might make landfall.
The P-3s’ tail Doppler radar and lower fuselage radar systems scan a storm vertically and horizontally, giving scientists and forecasters a real-time look at a tropical cyclone.
Storm surge forecasts have been improved by the addition of NOAA-developed Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometers (SFMRs) used on the P-3s. SFMRs measure wind speed over the ocean, as well as rainfall rates in hurricanes and tropical storms. These are key indicators of a potentially deadly storm surge, a major cause of hurricane-related deaths.
In addition, NOAA’s P-3s participate in storm reconnaissance missions when required by the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center. The purpose of these missions is to locate the center of a tropical cyclone and measure its central pressure and surface winds around the eye. The U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron also supports this mission with its WC-130J aircraft.
Hurricane hunting does have one limitation. Pilots avoid the perilous lower eyewall where the ocean meets the lowest part of the atmosphere. This violent area of high winds and towering ocean waves is of key interest to scientists, but it’s too dangerous for the aircraft and its crews. Recently, NOAA has been testing the use of drones to collect this data.
“Dropsondes give us ‘snapshots’ of weather conditions, while the continuous flow of data collected by uncrewed aircraft provide something closer to a movie,” Joseph Cione, lead meteorologist at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory Hurricane Research Division, said in a January news release. “Deploying the uncrewed aircraft from NOAA Hurricane Hunters will ultimately help us better detect changes in hurricane intensity and overall structure.”
NOAA meteorologist and flight director Richard Henning at his station aboard a NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion nicknamed Miss Piggy during a flight into Hurricane Edouard in September 2014.
NOAA’s G-IV can fly higher, faster and farther than the P-3s. With a range of 4,000 nautical miles and a cruising altitude of 45,000 feet, it paints a detailed picture of the upper atmosphere surrounding developing hurricanes. The G-IV’s data also supplements the critical low-altitude data collected by the P-3s. Since 1997, the G-IV has flown missions around nearly every Atlantic-based hurricane that has posed a potential threat to the United States.
The Hurricane Hunters fleet is based at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) in Lakeland, Florida. AOC is part of NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes civilians as well as officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the nation’s seven uniformed services.
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