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What is it like to fly into the eye of a hurricane?

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

The clouds inside the eye of Hurricane Ivan display the characteristics of the "stadium effect," with a bright white ring of clouds surrounding a blue sky above. Ivan made landfall Thursday morning as a category 3 storm in Mobile, Ala.

I'll admit I'm a bit of an adrenaline junky. Motorcycles, roller coasters, sky diving, you name it and I'll try it. So when Lori Bast, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration public affairs and outreach coordinator, offered a flight into Hurricane Ivan, it sounded like my idea of an absolute blast.

NOAA continues to study these violent and often devastating storms in order to help the National Hurricane Center and local meteorologists 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 launch when an approaching storm threatens to develop into severe weather.

This year has been extremely active and with three storms making landfall in Florida, the flight crews have been logging a lot of hours, said Tom Shepherd, a flight director with NOAA. There have been 13 flights into Ivan alone and he said he expects the season to continue.

Since NOAA is a division of the Department of Commerce, Don Evans, commerce secretary, also decided to brave the storm with a ride into the eye on one of NOAA's P-3 Orions.

The flight crew had a 2 p.m. planning session for the six-hour flight. The crew included Lt. Cmdr. Randy TeBeest, aircraft commander; Lt. Cmdr. Tom Strong, pilot; Lt. Cmdr. Mark Nelson, pilot; Lt. Pete Siegel, navigator; Lt. Devon Brakob, navigator, and Mr. Shepherd. As a former aircraft mechanic, I was able to understand most of the planning, but pilots have a language all to themselves when discussing Zulu times and vector quadrants, so I didn't quite get all the details.

During the pre-flight safety briefing, Commander Tebeest warned me the ride could potentially be, "a little rough," and showed me how to use the life vest in case we had to "ditch" the plane. I could feel my intensity level begin to rise as we talked but the crew was calm and agreeable. Their demeanor gave me a sense of security much like a pediatric physician eases a child before the prick of a needle.

After an uneventful take off and climb to altitude, the clouds began to thicken roughly 20 minutes into the flight. In front of my assigned seat were two small monitors with several channels available. No in-flight movie here though; these monitors could be switched between radar displays, maps and video cameras. There also were readouts of wind speed, heading, distance to the storm and distance to the eye. It even estimated how long it would take to reach the eye; one hour, seven min ... six min five min you get the idea.

At the initial penetration of the storm, Jeff Smith, NOAA system engineer, began launching dropsondes, small tubes designed to gather information about the storm. They record wind speeds, temperature, humidity and most important, pressure. This is the information the hurricane forecasters use to decide if the storm is getting stronger or weaker. There was only 150 miles to go until we hit the eye of the storm.

Turbulence began to pick up a bit, so I checked the screens. We were only about 6,000 feet above the surface of the ocean and wind speed had increased to nearly 90 miles an hour. At this point, visibility was down to zero. There was nothing to see outside except an impenetrable fog-like grayness. The "Fasten seat belts" sign illuminated just as I nearly gave myself a concussion by cracking my head on the window. I quickly strapped into the four-point harness and tenderly felt the lump forming above my right eye.

Unfortunately for me the jalapenos on the pizza I had for lunch weren't exactly thrilled to be dancing around. It took about 20 minutes to convince them it would be better to stay put than to abandon ship.

We broke through the eye wall at roughly 5:50 p.m. and it was eerily calm. Where the plane had felt like a wagon on a corduroy road only moments before, now the ride was smooth. It wasn't readily apparent but after a few minutes, the "stadium effect" became apparent. This is how the NOAA pilots described what it's like inside a well-formed eye. I snapped off as many shots with my camera as possible hoping at least one would capture what I was able to see, a bright white ring with blue sky above and huge white-capped waves below.

One of the scientists on board reported the waves right at the border of Ivan's eye were 60 feet high, and the tops reached as high as 30 in the very center.

Only a few minutes later we punched through the other side of Ivan's eye and my peppers started dancing again. This time however, it was only a few minutes until the turbulence waned and the crew began to move about the cabin. Apparently it was dinnertime, so most of the crew made their way to the galley where there was coffee, sodas, sandwiches and even a microwave to heat their food. I opted to abstain.

It took about an hour to exit the storm and reposition the Orion P-3 for reentry at a right angle from our previous position. On the outskirts of the storm, the outward spiraling rain bands were clearly visible.

The second ride through Ivan was uneventful until we hit the eye wall on the northwest side. I dare any Florida theme park to beat that ride! Thankfully my gastronomical storm was subsiding and I was able to enjoy the ride through the 155 mph winds. If I hadn't been strapped into my seat, I would've been tossed like a bull rider. My face actually started to hurt because I couldn't stop smiling. It was great! My wife would have probably had a hysterical fit, but opposites attract, right?

The final leg of the flight back to MacDill was like approaching bed time for a 5 year old. I just didn't want it to be over. Feelings of jealousy began to creep in because I knew the crew was planning to do it all again Tuesday. How I wanted to go! I was thankful for this fantastic opportunity though. How many people have been able to actually fly into the eye of a category 5 hurricane?

I may never be lucky enough to ride into another storm like that since the waiting list at NOAA is pretty long. Until then I guess I'll have to get my adrenaline fix another way. I still haven't gone spear fishing for Great White Sharks yet...




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