How hurricane hunters fly into the storm to collect vital forecast data

Weather Blog

This photo provided by the National Hurricane Center shows a view of Hurricane Dorian from Hurricane Hunter P-3 Aircraft early Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (Paul Chang/National Hurricane Center via AP)

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The recon missions conducted by NOAA Aircraft Operations Unit out of Florida and the U.S. Air Force Reserve Unit in Mississippi into tropical systems are an essential component of the hurricane warning system. 

The crews which engage in the often-bumpy flights into these disturbances and storms relay a constant stream of data back to the National Hurricane Center, where it offers tropical forecasters critical views of the structure of tropical storms and hurricanes. 

It provides forecasters critical situational awareness not only of storm structure but also the environment in which these storms are situated. Their data is continuously uplinked to the Hurricane Center where it’s fed into the constellation of supercomputer models which project the path and intensity of such storms.

Posts by NOAA hurricane hunter Nick Underwood take you inside missions into “Laura” over the past day, and show just how they collect this vital data.

Instrument payloads known as “dropsondes” are dropped into tropical systems with instruments which send back readings of moisture, pressure and temperatures as they descend to the ocean surface. 

They are dispatched from the aircraft into the storm from a small portal in the floor of the aircraft. Underwood shows us the deployment of one of these dropsondes during yesterday’s flight into “Laura”:

I’ve had a chance to fly into these storms three times over my career. I flew with the NAVY hurricane hunters in 1975. The Navy no longer flies these missions but went out of the Jacksonville Naval Air station when I was working in 1975. 

That flight went into a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and stay with that storm 12 hours, departing as the storm was going “extratropical”–in other words entraining cool air–when it was off New England. 

Over ensuing years, I flew with the U.S. Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Unit out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS. 

It’s an amazing  experience–one which makes you realize how talented the crews both for NOAA  and the U.S. Air Force Reserve are to conduct these challenging missions under the challenging and downright dangerous conditions posed by tropical systems.

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