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NOAA flies into Hurricane Ophelia to aid forecasters

by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman
Thunderbolt editor
Photo by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman

Tom Shepherd, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration flight director, boards the Gulfstream G-IV known as “Gonzo” before flying into Hurricane Ophelia Sept. 8. The flight was scheduled to take weather readings to help forecasters predict the storm's path. Inset: photo from www.nmoaa.gov of Gonzo in flight.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman

John Kaplan, from the Hurricane Research Center in Miami, filters the data received in flight.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman

Paul Flaherty, NOAA meteorologist, discusses procedures with Mr. Shepherd, who normally flies NOAA’s P-3 directly into storms.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman

The flight path of the mission Sept. 8 took the Gulfstream from the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Expanded view of a dropsonde, which NOAA uses for research.

Thanks to yet another active season and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, now more than ever people are in tune to hurricanes and their effects. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been operating here at MacDill since 1993 and is a key player for scientists and the public alike when it comes to understanding these violent and often deadly storms.

While there has been a public outcry blaming global warming or even President Bush for the seemingly high number of storms this year, NOAA pilots brush off those trying to point a finger at anyone for Mother Nature's patterns. NOAA's research helps the National Hurricane Center and local meteorologists more accurately predict their patterns and intensity.

"There is nothing that has happened in the past seven or eight years that have caused any of these storms," said NOAA Cmdr. Rob Poston, aircraft commander.

"We're in the middle of a twenty year cycle and this part of the cycle just happens to be more intense than other years," said Paul Flaherty, NOAA meteorologist. "We can never really predict how many there are going to be either; there are just too many factors involved."

The hot and humid months of July, August and September are the peak of hurricane season and NOAA's aircraft are ready to launch whenever an approaching storm threatens to develop into severe weather.

Currently the fleet of aircraft includes a Gulfstream G-IV high altitude research jet, two P-3 Orions, which are specialized to penetrate a hurricane's eyewall, two Gulfstream Aero Commanders and a myriad of other aircraft specialized for NOAA's research.

The Gulfstream G-IV is a high-altitude, high-speed, twin-turbofan jet aircraft acquired by NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center in 1996. The G-IV, affectionately nicknamed "Gonzo," is currently configured for operational support of the National Hurricane Center synoptic surveillance mission.

The crew for a Sept. 8 flight included Commander Poston, aircraft commander; Lt. Cmdr. Will O'Dell, pilot; Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Hagan, pilot; Tom Shepherd, flight director; Mr. Flaherty, flight director; Mark Rogers, scientific systems analyst; Dale Carpenter, electronics technician; and John Kaplan, from the Hurricane Research Center in Miami.

"We're trying to measure the steering currents that affect a hurricane," said Commander Hagan, adding that most people don't' really understand the mission of the Gulfstream. The jet doesn't actually fly into a hurricane but flies around it to study all the related weather that will push the storm around. He said the main tool used for this task is the GPS dropsonde.

The dropsonde is released from the Gulfstream measuring and transmitting back to the aircraft the pressure, temperature, humidity and GPS Doppler frequency shifts as it descends to the surface of the ocean. After analysis and processing of the dropsonde data, the information is formatted into a message that is then transmitted to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center for inclusion into the global and hurricane model runs. That data is in turn what viewers see on the local weather broadcasts during the six o'clock news.

NOAA's aircraft operate throughout the United States and "wherever the weather takes us," said Commander Poston. He said the agency's projects take the Gulfstream and NOAA's personnel all over the world studying different storms and weather conditions.

So while the hurricane chasers have the high-profile jobs, NOAA is involved in much more than severe seasonal weather patterns. Its research is leading the way for meteorologists and safety experts alike to develop new technology for coping with anything Mother Nature can dish out.

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