Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bye-Bye Hurricane Season!

It’s not official, nor is it likely to be approved by the federal government anytime soon but for residents of South Florida, the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic states, November 30 should be a national holiday. It is the 4th of July, New Year’s Day and Christmas all rolled into one because November 30th marks the end of the hurricane season.

Thanks to an unusually quiet year in the tropics, this year’s observation went mostly unnoticed except by pilots at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. The pilots are part of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron better known as the Hurricane Hunters, the airplanes that fly directly into hurricanes.

In the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season, the Hurricane Hunters flew more than 1,500 hours into storms beginning in May with Hurricane Adrian in the Pacific and ending in early December with Hurricane Epsilon. The average mission lasts around 11 hours as the aircraft crisscrosses the storm and penetrate the powerful eye wall several times.

Flying through a 100 mph hurricane for half a day may seem crazy but, ironically, pilots say the stronger the storm the smoother the ride. Well-formed hurricanes produce very little wind shear resulting in a fairly easy ride as the Hurricane Hunters probe the storm, providing forecasters with invaluable information.

Ask a Hurricane Hunter to fly through a garden-variety thunderstorm and you’ll get a quick refusal. Thunderstorms are full of wind shear and, more importantly, lots of hail. Even small hail poses a significant threat to airplanes.

Charlie Summers knows all too well what hail can do to an aircraft. A research scientist for the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Charlie pilots the only airplane in the world capable of flying through thunderstorms.

“The hail gets pretty loud,” Charlie told interviewers from “It sounds like a hammer pounding on the windscreen.”

With armor plating on the wings and tail, Charlie’s T-28 trainer has made more than 900 penetrations of thunderstorms surviving updrafts of 115 mph, hail two inches in diameter and dozens of lightning strikes. Like the Hurricane Hunters who survey tropical systems, Charlie’s quick trek into thunderstorms (the average mission lasts about two hours) is all about gathering data.

“We measure the moisture content of the air,” said Charlie. “We also count hail, rain drops, ice particles and snow. We can also measure the electrical intensity of the storm.” The data help researchers gain a better understanding of thunderstorms in general, and of air motion and turbulence specifically.

After 37 years of service, Charlie’s plane is being retired. The aircraft will go on display at the Strategic Air and Space Museum at Ashland, Nebraska. The National Science Foundation has requested that a two engine A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft be made available as a replacement.

A two-engine aircraft is an excellent idea, according to Charlie, who has been forced to make several “dead-stick” landings on highways after lightning knocked out the power to the single engine of the T-28.

“The Super Cells (the strongest, most severe type of thunderstorm) are the most interesting,” said Charlie. “The lightning is pretty much like a strobe light with lightning striking us every two to three seconds.”

Flying through a thunderstorm or a hurricane is a special job for a handful of qualified people, men and women who help gather important information leading to a new understanding of the weather. Like the archeologist who digs through the dirt to discover the past, the scientists studying the weather need to explore thunderstorms and fly through hurricanes to figure out what makes these complex mechanisms tick.

Instead of a national holiday to mark the end of the hurricane season, maybe we should honor these men and women, the Hurricane Hunters of Keesler Air Force Base and pilots like Charlie Summers.

Posted at 8:56 AM