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USAF Navigator: “We’re flying in a hostile environment”

Pilots fly through hurricanes to improve forecasts
Published: Sep. 6, 2021 at 10:42 AM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Most pilots steer around storm systems but ‘Hurricane Hunters’ chart a course through them. Mechanical issues can jeopardize safety in the air and on the ground.

Torrential rain and howling wind are normal flight conditions for the men and women of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. But, as Ida hurtled toward Louisiana, a crack spiderwebbed across the co-pilot’s windshield at the tail-end of that Saturday’s morning mission.

“It’s a rare event but these things sort of happen,” said the flight’s navigator, Lt. Col. Mark Withee, “we’re flying in a hostile environment.”

Withee said the crack didn’t put the crew in danger but did force them back to base early. “Whenever possible, if we can go to a spare aircraft we will,” he noted.

Withee said typically crews are able to get back into the air and mission, but in this case, they didn’t have enough spare time left on the data-collection clock.

Forecasters rely on getting measurements in real-time.

“What the [flight data] does is tell us a lot about how the storm is working,” said Prof. Mark Bourassa with Florida State University’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.

Bourassa said computers digest terabytes of data collected by Air Force and NOAA flights. Each wind, pressure, temperature, and radar reading adds up to a better prediction about a hurricane’s power and path.

In the short term, those prepping for the storm have a better idea of what’s coming. Over the decades, Bourassa added, the readings helped refine satellite measurement and even redefine the forecast models.

“Even when the airplane’s not there, we can get much better observations of the storm, than we would have otherwise gotten,” Bourassa said.

NOAA completed all of its Ida flights but may not be as well prepared if issues do arise during future storms.

Corrosion grounded its jet for days as Hurricane Hermine bore down on Florida in 2016. A year later, Congress demanded a backup jet.

NOAA has one in the wings, but it still needs to be outfitted with specialized research technology before it’s ready to fly missions.

Hurricane Hunter flights end once a storm makes landfall but pilots and crew are likely to be up in the air again soon. This season is producing more named storms than usual and the peak does not typically arrive until September 10th.

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