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Hurricane chasers gear up for Charley

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

NOAA's WP-3D aircraft, known affectionately as "Miss Piggy," is one of only two aircraft in the world built specifically to fly directly into the eye of a hurricane. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has 13 different planes flying world.

Mother Nature is poised to unleash hurricane force winds and torrential downpours from Hurricane Charley on MacDill in the wee hours of Friday morning. And while most personnel at MacDill have battened down the hatches and headed away from danger, the pilots and meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grabbed their gear to head directly into the storm.

NOAA continues to study these violent and often devastating storms in order to more accurately predict their patterns and intensity. The hot and humid months of July, August and September are the peak of hurricane season and NOAA's aircraft are ready to rock when an approaching storm threatens to develop into severe weather.

"The aircraft we use is very unique," said Lt. Cmdr. Randy Tebeest, executive officer for NOAA, referring to the WP-3D used since 1977. "Most general aviation aircraft couldn't physically withstand the turbulence and debris inside a hurricane."

He added that the equipment on the plane is specifically designed to study the environment around it, so the pilots are much better informed than most aviators about any dangerous conditions that could develop.

"We take the planes to their limit... but we're not cowboys," said Commander TeBeest about flying into hurricanes. "It's different than anything I could have imagined. We have a plan when we take off and as soon as we are airborne, that plan changes. You never know exactly what it's going to be like."

According to NOAA's website, www.noaa.gov, a hurricane is a category of tropical cyclone, the general term for all circulating weather systems (counterclockwise is the Northern Hemisphere) over tropical waters. Tropical cyclones can be classified three ways:

  1. Tropical Depression: an organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 mph or less.
  2. Tropical Storm: which is an organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph.
  3. Hurricane: which is an intense tropical weather system with a well defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph or higher. In the western Pacific, hurricanes are called "typhoons," and similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called "cyclones."

Jack Parrish, NOAA chief meteorologist, said one of the primary tools used to study these storms is called a dropsonde.

"It's a small tube with instruments in it that has a parachute attached. It also has a radio transmitter to send data back up to the airplane. When we get to the center of a hurricane at 10,000 feet, the dropsonde operator will release it into the center of the eye," said Mr. Parrish. "It sends back information about wind speed, temperature, humidity and most important, pressure. This is the information the hurricane forecasters use to decide if the storm is getting stronger or weaker.

Mr. Parrish said hurricanes are products of the interaction between the tropical ocean and the atmosphere. He said they are helped by the rotation of the Earth. They are powered by heat energy from the sea and are steered by the easterly trade winds and the temperate westerlies as well as by their own energy. Of the 60 to 70 tropical waves originating in Africa, most storms never fully mature into hurricane status.

Each year on average, 10 tropical storms (of which six become hurricanes) develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico. Many of these remain over the ocean. However, about five hurricanes strike the United States coastline every three years. Of these five, two will be major hurricanes (category three or greater on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.)

The Tampa Bay Area was last hit by a major storm in 1960. Hurricane Donna is the only hurricane on record to have produced hurricane-force winds in Florida, the Mid-Atlantic states and also in New England - giving her status as one of the all-time great hurricanes of U.S. recorded history.

Winds were recorded at 128 mph with gusts to 150 at Sombrero Key, Fla.; Manteo, NC recorded wind gusts of 120 mph, and Block Island, RI reported winds at 95 mph with gusts to 130 mph. The storm surge in the Florida Keys was 13 ft, and still as high as five to 10 feet in New England. Florida recorded rainfalls up to 12 inches, and other areas along the path of the storm recorded four to eight inches.

The death toll attributed to Hurricane Donna was more than 150, and damages were estimated at $400 million. This storm was a catalyst for the foundation of NOAA.

Originally created as the Research Flight Facility in 1961, the goal of the combined effort of the Weather Bureau and the Department of Defense was to learn more about hurricanes. The main objective was to see if a storm's intensity could be decreased through dynamic cloud seeding. A WC-130B aircraft was obtained on loan from the U.S. Air Force in 1970.

President Richard M. Nixon proposed the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in July of that year. His goal was to unify the nation's scientific efforts under one agency. He envisioned NOAA providing scientific and technical services to other federal agencies, private sector research interests and the public.

NOAA became a reality in October of 1970. The organization was tasked with the responsibility to predict changes in the oceans, atmosphere and living marine resources. Data collected by NOAA would be shared with other agencies, private industries, the research community and the public.

The Aircraft Operations Center moved to MacDill in January of 1993. Currently, the fleet of aircraft here includes a Gulfstream GIV-SP high altitude research aircraft acquired in 1996, two WP-3D Orions, two Gulfstream Aero Commanders, the Gulfstream Turbo Commander, a Cessna Citation II, two DeHavilland Twin Otters, one Bell 212 and one MD 369 (Hughes 500) helicopter and two Aerofab Lake amphibian aircraft.

NOAA's aircraft operate throughout the United States and "wherever the weather takes us," said Commander TeBeest. He said the agency takes an interest in projects from air quality studies to aeronautical charting and marine mammal studies. The P-3, known affectionately as "Miss Piggy," has been to multiple countries including Tahiti, Honduras, Newfoundland and Trinidad.

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 Mother Nature.




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