Those that know me know that I have one big fear, flying. I haven’t always been afraid to fly, but just thinking about being in a large metal tube 30,000 feet in the air is enough to make my pulse quicken and panic to ensue. The recent tropical activity got me thinking that there are people whose job it is to fly into the most severe weather conditions that Mother Nature creates. They’re called hurricane hunters and these brave men and women fly into the heart of the largest storms to gather intel and help those in the storms path make important decisions like whether or not to evacuate. This is my worst fear magnified.
Hurricane hunter flight crews are normally given 48 hours notice for a flight. It takes a significant amount of preparation to deploy a full crew to a variety of international locations. Crew work and sleep schedules often need to be adjusted to ensure each member is adequately rested for the launch. On the day of the flight, a normal preflight check starts 2–3 hours before takeoff. The pilots, Flight Director and Navigator conduct a mission brief with science team personnel to review the planned route, mission profile, data collection objectives, current and forecast storm development, expected hazards (e.g., convection, icing, salt accretion); weather for takeoff, landing, etc.
Successful hurricane missions are outstanding examples of teamwork. Maintaining respect for the immense storms is key. When you get overconfident, Mother Nature has a tendency to humble you. You don’t want to get overconfident in a hurricane. Conditions change constantly in the storm. The dynamic nature of the environment means the only sure things about the trip are the bumps behind you.
In August two hurricane hunter pilots made history. Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Waddington and Captain Kristie Twining's flight to Hawaii was a big milestone for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) who started flying hurricane missions in the 1960’s. When they flew toward Hurricane Hector, it was the first time two female pilots had shared a cockpit on a NOAA hurricane mission.
In the air for hours at a time, they helped build a vertical profile of the atmosphere near Hector by dropping data collection devices and collecting information about the temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed at different elevations to be used in storm forecasts and tracking models.
Being a native Floridian I’ve all too often found myself checking weather forecasts for the latest hurricane projections to see if central Florida lies in the cone of uncertainty. I’ve just assumed that satellites and modern technology were responsible for gathering this information. Next time I view a storm tracker I will remember that there are people much braver than I whose job is to risk their life to keep me safe. Storm soldiers. Just imagining them performing their job duties is enough for me to start having a panic attack.