Hurricane hunters’ trips begin here
Flights to eye of the storm start in Central Florida
As Floridians prep to hunker down for the start of hurricane season, a dedicated crew gear up for the impending airborne hunt.
About an hour south of Orlando is the Lakeland Linder International Airport, which is the home of three hurricane hunter aircraft. Two are Lockheed WP-3D Orions also known as “Kermit” and “Miss Piggy” and one of them is a Gulftstream IV-SP, also known as “Gonzo.”
The three planes are used to investigate a variety of weather phenomenon including severe storm and tornado research in Kansas, winter storms in the North Atlantic and atmospheric research in the Caribbean, according to NOAA spokesman Johnathan Shannon.
Albeit dangerous, flight reconnaissance is an important element for meteorologists looking to perfect their hurricane models when forecasting an incoming storm.
Florida may seem like an odd choice for a hurricane aircraft facility, given at how exposed the peninsula state is to dangerous winds, but Florida has been home to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s flight facility since 1961 with Miami being its first home base. Tampa became the new base until 2017 when the Aircraft Operations Center moved to
“Prior to our move to Lakeland, we conducted a thorough analysis and determined that Central Florida remained the best location to meet our mission requirements,” Shannon said. “From there, we can forward-deploy to the U.S. Virgin Islands or Barbados to extend our reach, or to other cities in the U.S. if our home base in Lakeland, Florida looks to be affected by a storm.”
Each aircraft is piloted by NOAA Corps commissioned officers who have hurricane flight qualifications, such as Lt. Commander Rob Mitchell.
Mitchell, an Arizona native, always wanted to be a pilot. He studied at the University of North Dakota where he received a double degree in flying and meteorology. He’s flown through hurricanes for the last six years and has endured questions regarding his sanity from friends and family.
“I am routinely called crazy,” Mitchell said.”I get that it can seem dangerous, but you can take certain precautions when you’re flying. You can have risk management so when you’re flying it may be hazardous, but it won’t be unsafe.”
Piloting a hurricane hunter aircraft is a huge responsibility as the craft is essentially a weather center with wings carrying complicated meteorological measuring tools and about 18 specialists.
An operation center crew consists of two to three pilots, two flight engineers, a meteorologist, a navigator, data systems technician, dropsonde operator, a systems engineer, an avionics technician and several research scientists.
Conducting research onboard is not considered peaceful as the ride through a tropical system is described by hurricane hunters as “a roller coaster through a car wash,” Shannon said.
Not only does a pilot contend with howling wind forces and blinding rain, but also when you get to a high enough altitude that rain becomes ice.
“The hardest part of the job is considering all the variables, and that’s true whether you’re flying through the tropics, the Arctic or above sea ice. You’re always thinking of contingency plans in the event of a significant malfunction.”
As a pilot, it’s Mitchell’s job to safely fly through the hurricane’s eye wall and enter the storm’s eye where the aircraft’s instruments can begin measuring various aspects of the storm as Mitchell flies across its diameter.
While each storm experience is different, Mitchell describes flying Kermit through 2019’s Category 5 Hurricane Dorian as a “unique” experience.
Hurricane Dorian was a historically powerful hurricane, tying the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 as the strongest Atlantic storm to make landfall with maximum sustained wind speeds of 185 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“It was the first storm I ever felt nervous flying through,” he said. “Dorian was a great example of the strange things that can happen when you’re flying through a hurricane. The internal eye diameter was small, may be 10 to 15 miles across. As we got to the center of, we started sweating, and not just from nervousness.”
Dorian exerted so much pressure inside of its eye it created a swell of heat that was permeating into Kermit’s ventilation system.
“Dorian was overriding our air conditioning system, and piping warm air inside,” Mitchell said. “There was one point where without our guidance the aircraft began rising with the winds. Nature was sharing control of the aircraft as we flew to the center of Dorian. We tried to keep the crew safe, and we did. Experiences like that when you have to react to the situation makes it much less comfortable to go back in and make the next pass, but as long as you don’t over stress the aircraft you’ll get back OK.”
Mitchell spent 11 days and recorded 190 hours of recon flying through Dorian. While tiring, Dorian’s original projected forecast had it striking Florida’s east coast this was an added stress as Mitchell needed to prepare his family and home much like other Floridians.
Dorian slowly crawled over the Bahamas where it was directly responsible for the deaths of more than 200 people, with another 245 people still remain missing, while also tallying up $3.4 billion in damages.
Luckily for Florida the storm passed without making landfall.
While some Floridians may have already put Dorian behind them, the storm will always brew memories for Mitchell who earned his full NOAA hurricane flight qualification after flying through it, meaning he has performed at least 50 flight passes as a pilot through a hurricane.
Mitchell admits his job has made him jaded to the power of these tropical engines capable of producing lethal and destructive winds.
Although, every other season he comes upon a storm, when entering the eye, he said it creates a stadium-like effect akin to walking through a tunnel and into an arena of thousands of cheering fans - “it’s awe-inspiring.”
“My feelings on it are a bit of a contradiction, I feel lucky to see something like this, to collect data, but Dorian you can look down and see the coast of the Bahamas and know people are having the worst day of their life or their last. You’re up here to do a job. It’s what you train for but you never want a hurricane to come through and change lives.”
NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N43RF taking off from Lakeland Linder International Airport
Lt. Commander Rob Mitchell is a NOAA Corps commissioned officer, who flies planes through hurricanes.