NOAA Hurricane Hunter P3 Flight into Hurricane Ophelia

                                     Hurricane Hunter P3

 Today's Mission:
 To fly through a Hurricane
for 9 hours in the
NOAA P3 Hurricane Hunter
***strap yourself in!***

Weather probes

side view

Raymond Tong dropsonde operator

Flight Director Martin Mayeaux

not sure about his one

Terry Lynch SFMR station

sea surface  

time to find a seat fast!

Navigator  Peter Siegel

Co-Pilot Barry Choy

The sweet spot - In the "eye"

Nose Camera - very cool!

 Pilot  Randy Tebeest

Pre-flight briefing by Randy Tebeest 

Navigator briefing by Peter Siegel

Media briefing by Co-pilot Mike Silah





 Flying aboard the NOAA Hurricane Hunters 

The NOAA Hurricane Hunters are based out of the Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) at McDill AFB, Tampa, Florida. The two primary types of aircraft used are the WP-3D Orion and the Gulfstream IV high altitude sampling jet.

 The majority of hurricane reconnaissance is done by the Air Force 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron C-130s at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi. The NOAA Hurricane Hunters will also fly reconnaissance missions, but their primary role is research. When they fly, they carry a number of scientists from the Hurricane Research Division in Miami with them.

One of my most significant experiences with the Hurricane Hunters was when I flew on board N43-RF into Hurricane Ophelia on September 14, 2005. The plane was nicknamed "Miss Piggy," and was one of two P3s at the AOC. At the time, Ophelia was an 85-mph hurricane located near Wilmington, North Carolina and moving slowly northeast. She was just offshore.

 After a NOAA Hurricane Hunter mission briefing in the AOC hanger, I was taken out to where Miss Piggy was parked on the tarmac. The first thing I noticed was that it wasn't a jet like we're all used to flying in commercially. Instead, it was a four-engine turbo propeller aircraft. This was how my parents and grandparents used to fly. There were odd-shaped weather probes under the wings and a large dish under the fuselage that housed a special type of radar. Near the door were many red hurricane decals - one for every hurricane in which the plane had flown. I counted 68 and even found one of my favorites: "Hugo" from 1989. I'll tell you more about that historic mission later.

 Once we went through all the preflight checks, the aircraft commander Randy Teebest gathered the flight crew, scientists, and media near the back of the aircraft for the preflight briefing. He ran down a checklist and described what we might expect on this mission. One of the main concerns was turbulence. I knew it could be a pretty wild ride, so I had a pack of strawberry-flavored chewable "bonnie" anti-motion sickness pills in my pocket. Just behind the cockpit in the cabin was a large "Fasten Seatbelt" sign that lit up with two quick tones when turbulence was coming. Seeing that sign and hearing the tones meant you wanted to find a seat really quickly.

 Next up, Navigator Peter Siegel described the airspace we would be flying through as we neared Ophelia. There was one area of restricted airspace, and in another area some Air Force F-16s would be operating. We had their frequencies and could call them if we needed to. 

After the crew briefing, pilot Mike Siloh gave the media safety briefing. Mike was one of three pilots on the flight that would be alternating in the pilot's seat during the mission. At the back of the aircraft was a galley equipped with a cooler, microwave, & coffeepot. Again, Mike stressed that we would be getting into some heavy turbulence. When the seat belt light and Klaxon came on we had to make sure we were seated and the cameras were secured. This wasn't going to be your typical commercial aircraft turbulence, either. Most of the equipment I saw was tied down, bolted down, or chained down. I even saw some consoles that were both bolted down and chained down. Later, I learned everything was anchored for good reason.

 At nine o'clock in the morning the engines ramped up and we rolled down the runway. Shortly after liftoff we flew over Tampa Bay, then we headed north-northeast along the coast, getting closer to Ophelia. The ride out was pretty smooth. I took the quiet time to record a short clip with scientific systems analyst Terry Lynch describing some of the research equipment on board.

I made my way up to the Flight Director's station on the port side and interviewed Martin Mayeaux. Across from Martin on the starboard side was the Navigator, Peter Siegel. He was busy ensuring we were on the proper flight path to intercept Ophelia.

 After an hour and a half of flight time we started getting into Ophelia's outer rain bands. The seatbelt sign came on, everybody strapped in, and I took a couple of strawberry-flavored bonnie, just in case. We hit pockets of intermittent turbulence that shook the aircraft in all directions. I looked over at the dropsonde operator, Raymond Tong, and he was busy programming a dropsonde so it would "talk" to the onboard computers after it was released. A few minutes later, Raymond spun around and placed the sonde into a clear plastic launch tube behind him. At a predetermined point, Raymond pushed a button on his console and a lever slid open on the firing tube, sucking the sonde out. A small parachute deployed, slowing the sonde as it fell 10,000 feet to the ocean's surface, sampling the environment on its way down.

 We pushed on - heading straight toward Ophelia's eye and slicing through the turbulence.

 I was careful not to move my head too much during all the shaking. Having flown the NASA KC-135 Zero-G "vomit comet," I knew better. If I got sick, the only relief would be getting my feet on the ground in another seven hours. I popped another strawberry bonnie for insurance.

 A special instrument located under the port wing of the aircraft, The Step Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR), measured 79 knot winds 28 miles from the center of the storm. The SFMR measures microwave radiation from the churning sea surface and generates a real time wind speed.

 We were close to the eyewall and the aircraft was shaking like nothing I'd ever been in before. I sensed that was the most dangerous part of the flight. In 1989, our sister ship N42 punched through the eyewall of category five Hurricane Hugo at 1,500 feet, which almost resulted in the loss of the aircraft. Jeff Masters was the flight director aboard that mission and wrote about the harrowing flight into Hugo.

 We pushed through the eyewall and into the large 50-mile-wide eye. The flight became noticeably smoother, and I risked taking a peek out the window. Between the intermittent clouds I could see a cobalt blue ocean topped with white streaks - the breaking waves, stirred up by the storm. I pictured myself on a fishing boat down there and wondered how big those waves were. When I was a kid, I had bad dreams of being stuck on a boat looking up at a giant wave getting ready to break. You have to wonder what it was like for ships back in the old days to sail through even a category one hurricane. 

Once in the calmer air of the hurricane's eye, I was able to get out of my seat and take pictures. I was anxious to check out the radar display on the console across the aisle. We were right in the center the sweet spot, with yellow rain bands all around us. It's much easier getting in the eye when you're in an airplane. On the ground it's harder because at some point the winds make it too dangerous to move around, but it was no problem in the P3. Even commercial jets routinely fly into winds over 100 mph in the jet stream.

 I heard the familiar suction sound as another dropsonde left the firing tube. That one was a "Center Fix" for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

 I made my way toward the front of the aircraft and started filming in the cockpit. Behind the right side co-pilot was a small bench seat that was a perfect spot for me. The cockpit was a maze of endless dials, gauges, switches, and displays. I wondered how anyone could keep track of all of them while also occupied with the stick and rudder. There was help from a third person in the cockpit, Flight Engineer Joe Klippel. He sat between and slightly behind the pilots. The flight engineer monitors the engines, oil pressure, and other parameters. He appeared to be older than most of the flight crew and I suspect he had many hours of experience. I got the sense that Joe really knew the "nuts and bolts" of the aircraft, right down to every little sound and vibration.

 Soon we would be pushing through the other side of the eye, so I made my way back down the fuselage and to my seat, getting into my harness and securing my cameras. The ride out wasn't too bad. There were pockets of turbulence, but at least there were no violent updrafts and downdrafts like I'd heard about in other flights. When strengthening Hurricane Katrina was approaching Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for example, the P3 flights were very turbulent.

 Outside I couldn't see beyond the wingtip. We were encased in thick grey clouds, and beads of rain slid across my window. The steady rhythm of the turbo fan engines turning the four-blade propellers was a reassuring sound.

 A few minutes later, the seatbelt sign was off. We made a turn, then turned back toward the eye once again to sample a different quadrant. And so began the ritual of filming and then running back to my seat when the Klaxon sounded. You didn't mess around either. Sometimes you had only seconds to get back to your seat. One time I was too far away, so I landed in the closest seat I could find. Fortunately, I was just in time.

 There were two other media photographers on the flight, and we quickly learned to work around each other. While the other two photogs were in the cockpit taking pictures, I would be filming the dropsonde leaving the firing tube or setting up a shot at one of the many instrument consoles.  Flying in the P3 and doing what you love must be a great job. I saw one scientist, Ed Walsh, who was a seasoned veteran. He didn't leave his station for the entire nine hours, and he was tough as nails. He looked like a kid in a candy store while watching the data roll in across his screen and typing away on his laptop.

 Throughout the flight we crossed Ophelia's eye numerous times, collecting vast amounts of data to be analyzed for years to come. We adjusted our flight path so as not to fly over land. The dynamics change quite a bit when you fly through the frictional effects of land and you want to be at a higher altitude. Around five in the evening we made our last pass and headed back to McDill, backtracking along the same route we had taken that morning. The sun came back out and I rode up in the cockpit and watched the approach into Tampa and McDill. It was a beautiful Imax movie-like view out the many windows in the huge cockpit. Pilot Barry Choy was flying the leg back home. We lined up on the runway and he made a feather-perfect landing. Home sweet home and no more "bonnie."

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