Hurricane Hunters- the plane & the pilot

A Moment of Science

“The P-3 Orion is uniquely configured for severe weather research- specifically hurricane research and reconnaissance.” NOAA has two of these that they use to collect radar and wind data directly from hurricanes. Robert Mitchell is the aircraft commander of this one- named Kermitt the Frog (the other is appropriately named Ms. Piggy). You wouldn’t think this aircraft, in service since the 1970s, would be the best option for flying into a hurricane but it’s track record certainly disproves that.

A recent upgrade to these planes added new wings and engines- but kept those propellors. That was a calculated choice not to switch to jet engines, as these turboprop engines are much better in a hurricane environment. The wet & windy hurricane environment also requires changes to a normal flight plan. These planes fly at or below 10,000 feet (compared to the “safe cruising altitude of 30,000 feet” of commercial aircraft). This is to make sure that loads of water on the aircraft doesn’t freeze at higher altitudes as anti-ice precautions can only go so far.

Missions take between 8-10 hours with a big chunk of that time spent in transit to the storm. But once they get to the most intense part of the hurricane, the eye wall, “there’s only one way through. So as we go through that eye wall we’re looking at the radar, looking at the gradients to try to find the safest spot we can go through and we’re heading right through it.”

But this isn’t one and done, Hurricane Hunters make several passes through the storm in a x-shaped pattern record data from all 4 quadrants of the hurricane. “Each pass through the storm takes about an hour to an hour and a half but luckily only about 15-20 minutes of that is in the eye wall and penetrating the real core of that storm.”

So how much worse is flying through a Cat 5 vs a tropical storm?

”I’ll bet if I asked you what storm was worse, you’d probably say a category 5…but I will tell you a category 5 storm has severe winds but as the storm builds up- often we find… that is when we go into that (storm), it has so much energy that is distributed throughout the entire storm that the turbulence is not nearly as bad. Often times it is that category 1 storm or tropical storm that is growing… that’s the storm that has all of those single cells, all those dynamics that are organizing and is causing that turbulence. It gives us the worst rides,” Robert Mitchell said. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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