View Full Version : Airborne labs plunge into storm’s center

08-29-05, 05:02 PM
August 29, 2005
Airborne labs plunge
into storm’s center
By Patrick O’Driscoll
USA Today

IN THE EYE OF HURRICANE KATRINA — The federal government’s “hurricane hunters” prowled dangerous skies this weekend on weather missions into the angry eye of Hurricane Katrina.

As the deadly storm drove north for a strike today on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, flight crews and scientists from the Air Force, Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration darted in and out of the hurricane aboard their airborne weather laboratories.

Their risky aim: to improve forecasters’ predictions of the intensity and path of the fierce hurricane.

NOAA’s WP-3D Orion aircraft, nicknamed “Miss Piggy” for the Muppets mascot on its fuselage, flew through the hurricane last week as it was about to strike South Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

Saturday, the four-engine plane flew more than 1,850 miles crisscrossing Katrina on a 7AF1/2XA-hour flight. The plane and its twin named Kermit are based at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa.

That day, Katrina was a Category 3 storm, with 115-mph winds, that caused minimal turbulence for the turboprop plane. “This storm’s been kind to us,” said Cmdr. Barry Choy, one of three pilots taking three-hour shifts Saturday at the controls.

Katrina would quickly grow overnight to Category 5 on Sunday, with near-record 175-mph winds, and the plane took off for another flight into the killer storm. Katrina was blamed for at least nine deaths in South Florida after it came ashore Thursday as a Category 1, the minimum hurricane grade with winds of 74-95 mph.

Lt. Michael Silah, another of the pilots, drew laughs at the preflight briefing Saturday when he announced, “Weather? Pretty much what you’d expect, or we wouldn’t be here.”

The plane’s 16 crewmembers and scientists saw the original eye disintegrate that afternoon, as a new eye — the center opening in the hurricane’s spinning winds — began to form that was tighter and stronger.

On Miss Piggy’s final pass about 100 miles east of the Florida Keys, the weather instruments picked up Katrina’s turn north toward today’s collision course with the coast.

“It was starting to intensify as we left,” said Robert Rogers, the flight’s lead scientist from NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division in Miami. Until then, “you could say (Katrina) was catching her breath,” he said.

The aircraft transmitted Katrina’s wind speed, barometric pressure and other characteristics by satellite to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Every three hours on Saturday’s flight, NOAA meteorologist A. Barry Damiano, the flight director, called the center by satellite phone with a “vortex data” report scribbled in pencil. A low-tech tool was bolted to the wall behind his computer console: a rusty, hand-cranked pencil sharpener.

Martin Mayeaux, another meteorologist on board and a Louisiana native, said family members near New Orleans “have been calling me, trying to find out if I have any inside information about the hurricane.”

On each pass through the eye wall, both pilots steered and watched cockpit gauges while the engineer held the engine throttles to keep the speed as close as possible to 243 mph, ideal for penetrating the eye without stressing the plane or losing control.

“It’s certainly the office with the best view,” Choy said as the plane bore through to the eye. There were patches of blue sky above and blue water 10,000 feet below.

The 111-foot-long aircraft has eight workstations for scientists and is jammed with instruments and radars.

Miss Piggy’s crew launched 30 disposable weather devices called dropsondes as the plane zigzagged across the storm.

Each plastic-and-cardboard cylinder sends storm data every half-second during the three minutes it takes to drop to the sea.

The pilots use wind gauges and other instruments to guide the plane, so it crosses as close as possible to dead center of the eye — where hurricane winds drop to zero — for several of the drops. Their best result: under 0.5 mph on the final pass.

The pilots tried to steer around areas that showed up as red on the radar screens, because that warns of severe turbulence that can buck the aircraft like a rodeo rider.

The NOAA plane also conducted a joint experiment with a Navy P-3 aircraft to study the intensity of the rain in the storm bands outside the hurricane’s eye wall.

Scientists aboard both planes dropped windsondes, beamed Doppler radars and traded e-mails in midair to direct the “RAINEX” experiment.

Whenever crewmembers weren’t strapped in through hurricane wind bumps, they walked up and down the interior, looked over the pilots’ shoulders and ate box lunches and sipped coffee in a galley in the rear. Anything not buckled down during a run through the eye wall can end up on the floor — or the ceiling.

Midflight on Saturday, the boss of NOAA’s fleet of planes and ships, Rear Adm. Samuel De Bow, stood in the aisle of Miss Piggy to give an award to the flight’s chief engineer, Greg Bast, for logging his 400th “penetration” of a storm’s eye wall, the most unnerving part of a hurricane mission. De Bow, making his first “pennie” on the flight, lauded the crew and scientists: “You’re saving people’s lives every time you (fly).”