These air crews fly deep into the world's most powerful hurricanes for science. Here's what it's like.

Sunrise, seen from flight station of NOAA WP-3D Orion N42RF ‘Kermit’ heading into Tropical Storm Elsa, July 4 2021.

Photograph by Lt Cmdr Rannenberg / NOAA Corps
By Dominic Bliss
Published 15 Dec 2022, 15:24 GMT

DORIAN was one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. Ranked at category five – the highest category there is – during the late summer of 2019, it ripped through the Bahamas, up the coast of the Southeast United States, and north as far as the Atlantic provinces of Canada. There were over 200 fatalities in all and property damage in excess of US$5 billion.

While most residents along the exposed islands and coastline wisely evacuated or took cover, one man did the complete opposite. Dr Jason Dunion, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), climbed aboard a Lockheed WP-3D Orion turbo-propeller aircraft with his work colleagues and flew straight into the eye of the hurricane.

“I felt like a feather in the wind,” he told National Geographic UK. “I felt like Mother Nature had me on the edge. At one point we had three-and-a-half to four Gs of force pulling us up and down. That’s something that someone who’s getting launched into space would feel. We expected it to be strong, but it was rapidly intensifying still. By the time we flew into it, the winds were well over 200mph at our flight level.”

As well as furious wind and blinding rain, one of the most disconcerting effects were the violent and sudden updraughts and downdraughts, especially in the eyewall – the ring of thunderstorms, where the most severe weather rages, spiralling around the hurricane’s eye. These can cause the aircraft to lurch suddenly upwards or downwards, with no notice.

Hurricane Dorian pictured by a NOAA satellite 200 miles off the coast of Florida, 1 September 2019. ...

Hurricane Dorian pictured by a NOAA satellite 200 miles off the coast of Florida, 1 September 2019. In this image the eye of the Category 5 hurricane is nearing the Bahamian island of Great Abaco. While images like this give a detailed picture of the track of a storm and its morphology, detailed information about conditions within its higher reaches can only by acquired by flying through it. 

Photograph by UPI / Alamy
NOAA Hurricane Hunter WP-3D Orion 'Miss Piggy' flies through the eye Hurricane Ida, a category 4 ...

NOAA Hurricane Hunter WP-3D Orion 'Miss Piggy' flies through the eye Hurricane Ida, a category 4 storm, as it approaches the coast of Louisiana August 28, 2021.

Photograph by NASA / Alamy
Lt Cmdr Copare at the controls of NOAA WP-3D Orion N43RF Miss Piggy in the eye ...

Hurricane Hunter Lt Cmdr Copare at the controls of NOAA WP-3D Orion in the eye Hurricane Ida, 2021.

Photograph by NOAA

“There’s a lot of sudden jolting,” explains Dunion who also works with the University of Miami. “You can lose a few hundred feet of your flight level in a matter of seconds. We can see what’s happening on the radar but we don’t know exactly when one of the updraughts or downdraughts is going to happen. So there’s that extra element of surprise. It’s like being on a rollercoaster but blindfolded.” At certain points, when the plane dropped sharply, Dunion and his colleagues experienced the weightlessness of zero gravity.

An airborne menagerie

51-year-old Dunion is one of NOAA’s hurricane hunters. The data he collects help the National Hurricane Centre, in Miami, predict the course and ferocity of hurricanes, with the ultimate goal of saving lives and property.

During the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June to November, Dunion regularly joins teams of meteorologists and engineers aboard the administration’s three aeroplanes, based at Lakeland Linder International Airport in Florida.

NOAA meteorologist Jason Dunion pictured next to one of the NOAA Corps aircraft.

NOAA meteorologist Jason Dunion pictured next to one of the NOAA Corps aircraft. 

Courtesy Jason Dunion / NOAA
NOAA WP-3D Orion N42RF Kermit before takeoff to TS Elsa July 4 2021 credit Lt Cmdr ...

NOAA WP-3D Orion N42RF ‘Kermit’ before takeoff to Tropical Storm Elsa, July 4 2021. The hardy turboprop Lockheed aircraft make up two of NOAA Air Corps principal aircraft, with a modified Gulfstream jet the third. 

Photograph by Lt Cmdr Rannenberg / NOAA Corps

Two of the planes are Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop aircraft, while the other is a Gulfstream IV-SP jet. Painted on the fuselages, and lending each plane its nickname, are characters from The Muppet Show. The Lockheeds sport Kermit, and Miss Piggy, while the Gulfstream has Gonzo.

It was in 1997 that Dunion first embarked on his rollercoaster ride of a job. Since then he has flown into more than 50 storms and hurricanes, mainly in the Atlantic, plus a small number in the eastern Pacific. Of them all, Hurricane Dorian has so far been his most turbulent.

Cartoonish paintjobs belie the crucial missions these aeroplanes perform. The Gulfstream jet normally patrols the upper fringes of hurricanes, while the sturdier Lockheeds fly right into the centre, first through the tumultuous eyewall, then into the tranquility of the eye, and back out through the eyewall again. Often they will make several crossings, back and forth.

View of the outer bands of Hurricane Teddy at sunset from NOAA WP-3D Orion N42RF "Kermit" during research mission on Sept. 18, 2020.

Photograph by Lt. Rannenberg, NOAA Corps

The ‘eyewall’ of Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 28, 2005, as seen from a NOAA WP-3D Orion hurricane hunter aircraft before the storm made landfall on the United States Gulf Coast. The eye in this image is exhibiting the so-called 'stadium effect' – caused by air rising quickly and spreading outwards, creating the effect of an open-air dome to the sky.

Photograph by PBH / ALAMY

Decals on the fuselage of NOAA's Orion aircraft indicate the names of major hurricanes penetrated. 

Photograph by RGB Ventures / SuperStock / Alamy

“The eye of the storm was spectacular,” Dunion recalls of his 2019 flight. “It’s surreal because it’s completely calm. We were flying at around 8,000 feet. It was early morning, so the sun was peeking over the top of the eyewall which was probably 40,000 to 45,000 feet high above us. Down below, we could see 30-foot waves on the ocean, and up above beautiful blue skies. We did three passes through the entire storm. It was quite a ride.”

Built for science

The Lockheed WP-3D Orion is a modified version of a P3 Orion, an aircraft developed in the 1960s by the US Navy for submarine hunting and maritime surveillance. Dunion explains how, inside, his computers and meteorological equipment are attached to racks bolted to the aircraft floor. Meanwhile he and his colleagues are strapped into their seats with five-point harness seatbelts, totally secure even when the storm is at its angriest.

Their job is to operate a whole host of meteorological devices such as radars, probes, 3D lasers, altimeters, microwave radiometers and dropsondes. These measure the speed, direction and shear of the wind, as well as temperature, pressure, convection, humidity, precipitation and gravity waves.

As well as their crewed aircraft, NOAA deploy drones too. They are currently testing one designed to fly within the eyewall of hurricanes. Another one flies at low levels, where it can take measurements close to the ocean surface. Dunion explains how it would be too risky to take crewed aircraft down so close to the waves where a sudden downdraught could spell disaster. Indeed, back in 1989, while researching Hurricane Hugo in the Caribbean, one of NOAA’s Lockheeds came very close to crashing into the ocean as one of its engines caught fire, causing the plane to plummet downwards. 

NOAA Flight Director Mike Holmes briefs the crew before a research mission to Hurricane Teddy, Sept 18, 2020.

Photograph by Lt. Cmdr. Mitchell / NOAA

NOAA technician deploys an airborne expendable bathythermograph (AXBT) during a mission to Hurricane Delta on Oct 6, 2020. 

Photograph by Paul Chang / NOAA

Flight Director James Carpenter on the Hurricane Hunter jet, a Gulfstream GIV-SP, assessing Tropical Storm Laura in August 2020. Carpenter's task is to recommend a flightplan to allow safe collection of scientific data. 

Photograph by Cmdr Mansour / NOAA

Terminal terminology

‘Hurricane’ is one of several names given to tropical cyclones, and specifically refers to storm systems in the North Atlantic or eastern Pacific Ocean. (In the northwest Pacific they are known as typhoons; in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific they are tropical cyclones.)

According to the Hurricanes: Science and Society website (developed by the University of Rhode Island) tropical cyclones are intense low-pressure weather systems that form over and are fuelled by tropical ocean waters. In the Northern Hemisphere, hurricane winds rotate anti-clockwise (as opposed to clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere), with the strongest winds in the eyewall, surrounding a nearly calm eye at the centre. Clouds in both the eyewall and the spiral bands of thunderstorms outside the eyewall can produce extremely heavy rain. It’s once tropical cyclones strike land that they generally start to decay.

The intensity of hurricanes is measured on the Saffir/Simpson hurricane wind scale, with rising categories one to five – one featuring winds between 74 and 95mph; five featuring winds 157mph and above.

Hurricanes 101

According to the National Hurricane Center, the deadliest hurricane ever recorded in the United States was the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which killed at least 8,000 people. Financially, USA’s costliest hurricane was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which caused at least $108 billion of property damage.

The Hurricanes: Science and Society website suggests “hurricane activity may also be affected in the longer term by climate change”. It adds: “In recent years, the relationship between hurricanes and climate change has become a source of public interest, significant scientific debate, and a focus for current research.”

Crucially, the National Hurricane Centre points out that of the 15 costliest hurricanes to impact the United States (with costs adjusted for inflation), all but one occurred in the 21st century

The devastation of Hurricane Dorian at Marsh Harbou, Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, September 4, 2019.

Photograph by Tribune Content Agency LLC / Alamy

The accuracy – and ethics – of prediction

This 2022 hurricane season just past, Dunion and his colleagues flew much further east than usual in an attempt to observe hurricanes as they formed, in the tropical waters around the Cape Verde Islands, just off the coast of West Africa. “We were able to observe these storms coming out of a nursery,” he explains. “About 80% to 85% of the major hurricanes we see are coming out of this nursery.”

While currently meteorologists can predict hurricanes five days in advance, Dunion believes studying the nurseries where they are born will soon allow for seven-day forecasts. The extra time could save lives.

Modern science may be helping meteorologists forecast storms with more accuracy, but not everyone pays as close attention as they ought to. Dunion stresses how important it is to communicate extreme weather information to the public more effectively. There are even sociological studies assessing how coastal residents respond to hurricane warnings. 

“The hurricane centre is conveying all this great information, but how do they communicate it so that people act on it?” he asks. “You don’t want folks ignoring something because they think the forecast is flopping back and forth, and then they decide they’re not going to evacuate.”

In recent years, there have been suggestions that scientists might eventually alter the intensity or path of hurricanes using methods such as cooling ocean water or cloud seeding.

However, Dunion worries about the moral implications of such a move. “What if you do alter a storm’s track? If you deflect a storm from your country to another country, is that ethical? Is that really fulfilling the goal of saving lives and property?”

He prefers to concentrate on the science. “Better understanding of hurricanes and making better forecasts is what’s going to save lives and property.”

That’s why he keeps flying into hurricanes.

Dominic Bliss is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter.


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