First 'hurricane hunter' flight was made on a bet
By KEN KAYE | Sun Sentinel | Published: July 26, 2013
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The first hurricane hunter flight 70 years ago this week was made on a bet — that the plane flying into the eye of a storm would be ripped apart in violent winds.
And all the daredevil pilot stood to win was a highball whiskey cocktail. He also faced a reprimand from senior officers.
Determined to prove a point, Army Air Corps Lt. Col. Joseph Duckworth ignored the perils and aimed the small AT-6 "Texan" trainer into a storm about to hit Galveston, Texas, on July 27, 1943. His navigator, Lt. Ralph O'Hair, would later describe the flight as "being tossed about like a stick in a dog's mouth."
When they landed safely in Bryan, Texas, it marked the first time a plane flew into the eye of a hurricane — and launched dramatic improvements in tropical forecasting, culminating in today's sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft and weather-gathering techniques.
"He wasn't aiming for the hurricane's eye. He just happened to stumble on it as he flew southward," said Neal Dorst, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, based in Miami.
Later that same season, military pilots flew more flights into tropical storms, including a major hurricane east of Miami in mid-August, all with the newfound purpose of capturing weather observations and relaying them to what was then the Miami Hurricane Warning Center.
These days, a fleet of powerful Air Force Reserve WC-130 turboprops, based at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, frequently flies into tropical disturbances, storms and hurricanes. Additionally, NOAA WP-3s, large turboprop planes based in Tampa, investigate systems for research purposes.
All the aircraft are loaded with sophisticated weather monitoring instruments. For instance, the WC-130s have stepped-frequency microwave radiometers to measure surface winds. The WP-3s have Doppler radar units that provide forecasters with a three-dimensional view of storms and help computer models generate better forecasts. The planes also release parachute-equipped devices, which hold atmospheric sensors, in and around storms.
Information from the planes, including a storm's location, strength and structure, has allowed the National Hurricane Center to improve tropical forecast accuracy by more than 20 percent when a system is within 12 hours of landfall, said James Franklin, the center's top hurricane specialist.
"The forecasters really rely on the aircraft data. It just gives them confidence and a real understanding of what's going on inside a storms," he said.
Before World War II, Duckworth was an Eastern Airlines pilot who pioneered procedures for aviators to fly on instruments, allowing them to fly in bad weather. During the war he headed the instrument flying school at Bryan Army Airfield, northwest of Houston.
In the summer of 1943, he was training a group of British fighter pilots who derided the AT-6 Texan as being slow and frail. Fully loaded, the single-engine, two-seat plane weighed less than three tons and cruised at about 145 mph.
Their complaining got louder when a hurricane threatened Texas, and Bryan Airfield's base commanders wanted the AT-6s flown to safer ground. Tired of the Brits' ribbing, Duckworth bet them that he could fly a Texan into the hurricane and return safely.
His intent was to show that both the plane and instrument flying techniques were sound, according to Air Force historical accounts. That morning, he found O'Hair, the only navigator left on the base, and asked him to fly along. O'Hair was hesitant, but went out of respect for Duckworth's skill.
Without seeking permission from the top, because base commanders would no doubt deem the mission extremely dangerous, Duckworth and O'Hair flew into the hurricane just as it was hitting Galveston.
At altitudes ranging from 4,000 to 9,000 feet, they were pounded by severe updrafts and downdrafts. But then the plane unexpectedly broke into the eye and the turbulence stopped, allowing them to circle and observe the countryside below.
When they returned to Bryan Airfield, the base meteorologist, Lt. William Jones-Burdick, insisted on being taken into the storm. So Duckworth went into the hurricane again, allowing Jones-Burdick to sit in back and jot down notes.
For winning the bet, Duckworth got his highball from the British pilots. He also got into trouble with his superiors for taking the unauthorized flights.
"His superiors finally decided it was better to give him a medal rather than a reprimand," Dorst said.
In the years following, the Air Force starting flying planes regularly into storms to assist the weather service, using planes such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-29 Superfortress, the WB-47 Stratojet and today's WC-130s.
"We have come so far since that first unauthorized, seat-of-the-pants mission," said Dorst, who keeps track of important weather-related anniversaries. "We have learned so much about hurricane structure in the intervening years."