Hur­ri­cane hunters’ trips be­gin here

Flights to eye of the storm start in Cen­tral Florida

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Joe Mario Ped­er­sen

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.

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