JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii – While most everyone in Hawaii hunkered down for the arrival of the storm duo of Iselle and Julio in recent days, Air Force Reserve hurricane hunters were crisscrossing through the eyes of the storms.
Much of the information used by the National Hurricane Center in Miami to forecast hurricane intensity and direction comes in real time directly from weather stations in the back of C-130 prop planes operated by the Mississippi-based 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. The crews have been flying around the clock since Tuesday to supply readings to the weather center.
Friday evening, Maj. Sean Cross piloted one such 12-hour mission to Hurricane Julio. The mission was probably typical of most they fly: handling the unpredictable, coping with stretches of monotony, and always being alert for that sudden jolt of turbulence that can toss you out of your seat.
Friday’s flight was heavy on frustration, low on rough air. For Cross, who gained some celebrity from appearances on The Weather Channel series “Hurricane Hunters,” this was to be his first flight into Julio. An hour and half into the flight from Hickam’s airstrip, however, Cross ordered the flight back to the base because of malfunctioning communication equipment.
As he explained later, you don’t want to be in the middle of a hurricane without being able to talk to each other or the outside world.
The flight landed, and the crew quickly stripped out the equipment they needed and transferred it to the squadron’s other plane. They were back in the air within a half hour.
By the time the C-130 reached Julio, the storm was churning slightly to the southeast of the Hawaiian Islands and had lost the highly-structured “eye wall” it had featured earlier. This made it a less awesome sight to behold – and since this was a night flight, there wasn’t much visible out the observation windows anyway. But hurricanes in rising or falling conditions can be the most volatile for the hunters.
“For the most part, when it’s a really well developed storm, it’s generally smooth – not perfectly smooth," Cross said. "You’ll feel some bumps along the way. But when you have a storm that’s going through rapid intensification or it’s rapidly dying, or you’ve got something that’s trying to get into hurricane status, that’s when you can usually get your best ride.”
Cross paused and chuckled. “I say ‘best’ ride, I mean roughest ride. To us, it’s the best ride.
“I’ve been knocked around pretty good,” he said. “We’ve all had some moments when we were doing some soul searching, asking why we were doing this.”
For Cross, that moment was probably in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan, which moved through the Caribbean and into the U.S., at one point at Category 5 intensity.
“We proceeded directly out the northern eye wall headed toward the Florida Panhandle at 10,000 feet, and we hit a really bad pocket,” Cross said. The turbulence was so strong that the cockpit’s instrument panel was jerking in and out about five inches, he said.
“I mean, it was just vibrating,” Cross said. “The entire aircraft was shaking as we were getting hailed on. It lasted about 10 to 15 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity.”
Friday’s mission through the eye of Julio, on the other hand, was “pretty benign,” Cross said after the flight was over. But that’s not to say Julio had nothing new to offer.
“I’ve been doing this 14 years, and this is the first time I’ve had two storms back-to-back on one deployment, where I hit one storm, go into crew rest, and the next day fly into another storm. And they’re both major hurricanes at some point. This has been a real treat.”
Maj. Kevin Fryar, a meteorologist who was the weather officer for Friday’s mission, said that the dual hurricanes that tracked each other had offered a “fairly unique” research opportunity.
“It’s a fairly rare event, but not a completely rare event,” Fryar said.
Navy researchers have joined the flights and have released a series of buoys that measure the fall and rise of water on and beneath the paths of the two hurricanes.
“That’s important to understand because, from a scientific perspective as to why these storms develop, getting that kind of information gives us an idea of how quickly a storm can intensify or maybe weaken, and more importantly, how it interacts with the overall temperature of the ocean.
“And in this case, we had the unique opportunity of having one storm move through an area — and be able to see it with these particular sensors — and [having] another storm move right behind it.”
In addition to the Navy buoys is the equipment the squadron routinely uses. Flying at 10,000 feet in a series of triangle patterns through the hurricane, the crew drops high-tech canisters that record and transmit temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity during their fall.
“As it’s falling, every 10 feet it’s taking a 'snapshot' of what’s going on at that flight level,” Cross said. After dropping about 2,500 feet per minute and sending data back to the plane, the canister crashes and stops functioning.
Attached beneath the wing of the plane is a stepped-frequency microwave radiometer – dubbed as the “smurf” by the crew – which measures surface water wind by analyzing the natural microwave radiation being emitted by sea foam.
All this info eventually ends up at the weather officer station in the cavernous cargo hold, which on Friday’s mission was manned by Fryar, who was also looking out an observation window for visual data.
The weather officer puts all this info into a “vortex data message,” which is sent to the National Hurricane Center via satellite.
“They take all that stuff and plug it into the forecast model,” Cross said.
The accuracy of the data collected by the hurricane hunters carries broad repercussions when it comes to mandatory coastline evacuations.
“For every mile that we make a difference for mandatory evacuation, you’re looking at $1 million per coastline mile,” Cross said. “That’s what we go by on the mainland. That’s a tremendous amount of money.
“When you look at television and see this ‘cone of uncertainty,’ if we weren’t out there you could increase that cone by about 30 percent.”
There’s one thing that’s always certain, however, as they fly into each new storm.
“It’s alive,” Cross said with tone of respect. “It’s constantly growing and dying, is the easiest way to explain it. It’s fighting for that energy. It’s fighting for that life cycle.”