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Hunting Hurricanes

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Over the last two years I’ve spent a lot of time looking at weather forecasts (especially during hurricane season) because they’re pretty important to the work I do. Despite this, I had never thought much about the science behind predicting hurricanes or what it means to be a Hurricane Hunter pilot.

Then I went to the Hurricane Awareness Tour stop in Washington, D.C., and had the opportunity to tour one of the aircraft that fly directly into storms and meet the brave souls who pilot them. Here’s what I learned, thanks to the expertise of Lt. Col. Drew Clark and Major Devon Meister.

A large, gray aircraft is parked on the tarmac at an airport.

The plane pictured above is the WC-130. Owned by the Department of Defense, piloted by the Air Force Reserve, and mission-assigned by the National Hurricane Center, this impressive aircraft is one of only 10 of its kind in the entire world. What’s unique about it (outside of being able to fly into hurricanes) are the modifications that allow it to collect data on the weather.

A small white box on the underside of a plane's wing.

One of these modifications is an unassuming white box under the plane’s wing, called an SFMR (or Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer but the pilots lovingly refer to it as “the Smurf”).

As Lt. Col. Clark put it while giving me the tour, the Smurf can figure out wind speed by reading the radiation on the water’s surface—which isn’t bad for a little white box. He also noted that, before the Smurf, meteorologists used to have to look out the plane’s window at the water’s surface and guess the wind speed based on observations like streaks, foam, and wave heights.

Red chairs line the right side of the interior of a large aircraft.

Despite the spaciousness inside the WC-130, there are typically only five crewmembers onboard at one time. According to Major Meister, the crew consists of two pilots, a navigator, a weather officer, and a load master. The navigator keeps an eye on the radar to help steer the pilots away from the most dangerous parts of the storm. The weather officer communicates directly with the National Hurricane Center, transmitting data collected by an instrument the load master drops into the storm—a dropsonde.

A person holds up a cardboard tube with a blue parachute at one end.

The dropsonde may not look like much other than a cardboard tube with a parachute, but it’s equipped with sensors, a GPS, and a radio. During its freefall from the bottom of the plane, the dropsonde collects data on the storm and feeds it directly back to the plane where it’s quality checked by the weather officer and load master.

After spending about what Lt. Col. Clark estimates to be an average of six hours flying in the storm, the Hurricane Hunter crew wraps up their mission and flies home. The invaluable information they collect is compiled into forecast models, improving their accuracy by about 30 percent, according to Maj. Meister.

The work this team does is incredibly important because they see what satellites cannot, letting the public know what to expect from a hurricane headed towards the United States. When my colleague asked Lt. Col. Clark what his single most important piece of advice to offer Americans, he said, “Make a plan ahead of the storm.”

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Last Updated: 
06/02/2017 - 09:20