Friday, November 16, 2007

Flying Into Hurricanes

It began as a dare, a bet among British and American pilots on July 27, 1943 as a hurricane was approaching the Texas Coast. It ended in history, as Colonel Joseph P. Duckworth became the first man to fly into a hurricane and return.

Duckworth actually flew into the hurricane twice that day, first with navigator Ralph O'Hair and a second time with weather officer William Jones-Burdick. In both cases, Duckworth's plane encountered severe turbulence and heavy rain before breaking into the storm's eye.

Within a few years, flights into hurricanes would become routine, an important source of information for hurricane forecasters. Today, the Hurricane Hunters, based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi fly dozens of missions each season.

Remarkably, flying an airplane into a hurricane is not as crazy as it sounds. Still, some missions are more challenging than others. Writing in the October issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Neal Dorst recounts several rough rides.

On September 9, 1971 Hurricane Edith was approaching the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. Hurricane Hunters encountered "turbulence so severe that the pilots temporarily lost control of the aircraft," writes Dorst. "By the time they regained control, they had lost 1,000 feet of altitude."

During a flight into Hurricane Allen in August of 1980 the turbulence was so bad that "the shaking knocked loose the life raft and convinced one scientist that hurricane research was not his future," writes Dorst.

Perhaps the most memorable experience in the history of the Hurricane Hunters came in September of 1989 with a flight into Hurricane Hugo. Severe turbulence in the eye wall disabled one of the plane's four engines. "The plane had to orbit in the eye, burning fuel, while climbing to a safe altitude," writes Dorst. The aircraft limped back to Barbados where it remained out of commission for the rest of the season.

Despite these stomach-turning examples, the Hurricane Hunters have an excellent safety record. Since the first reconnaissance missions began in the 1940's, four airplanes have been lost in storms, the last in 1974 when an Air Force WC-130 went down in the South China Sea.

When Hurricane Noel was headed towards the Canadian Maritimes a few weeks ago, another type of hurricane reconnaissance was unveiled. The National Weather Service and NASA made history as the first unmanned aircraft flew through the storm.

The five-foot-long Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) drone was launched from Wallops Island, Va., on a 20-hour-long mission through the hurricane. The pilotless aircraft is designed to fly into the eyewall of a hurricane at altitudes as low as 500 feet.

Scientists hope using unmanned aircraft will help fill a gap in near-surface data. The data have been hard to gather because of the safety risks of low-level flight.

"Unmanned flights at very low altitude are important since they give us unique insights and continuous observations in a region of the storm where the ocean's energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above. Attempting this type of research flight with our hurricane hunter aircraft would risk the lives of our crew and scientists," said Joe Cione, hurricane
researcher in Miami.

NOAA scientists are coordinating the unmanned flight to coincide with a manned Hurricane Hunter mission as well, providing a volume of data on Hurricane Noel from top to bottom. This level of information saturation is valuable to researchers, providing a more complete picture of storm structure and strength that becomes a valuable tool for meteorologists.

The hope, of course, is for better forecasts and increased warning time for coastal residents of an approaching hurricane.

Joe Duckworth became a legend when he accepted the challenge of British
pilots and flew into a hurricane. The first UAS flight a few weeks ago made
history, too, increasing our knowledge of tropical cyclones, the
greatest storm on Earth.

Posted at 11:59 AM