How hurricane hunter aircraft gather data to monitor storms


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WNCN) – Every hurricane season, you hear meteorologists talk about the hurricane hunter aircraft investigating tropical systems. 

But CBS 17 Chief Meteorologist Wes Hohenstein got to go inside one to learn how these important missions are executed.

Hohenstein talked to pilots and science officers who risk their life every hurricane season so meteorologist around the world can have access to better data when hurricanes approach land.

There are three primary aircraft that NOAA, The National Hurricane Center and the United States Air Force use to investigate hurricanes during the season, the G-4 high altitude research plane, the P-3 and WC-130.  

Hohenstein went inside the WC-130, which is actually a C-130 Hercules transport plane with a few modifications to allow crews to perform their weather mission.  

The WC-130 was at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in May as part of the 2019 Hurricane Awareness Tour along the east coast.

While this tour involved short flights down the East Coast, most hurricane mission flights last around 12 hours.

They usually take off from one of two Air Force bases. MacDill AFB near Tampa, Florida or Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi. Once the pilots are tasked with their mission of investigating a hurricane, their mission begins.

Once the pilots get the aircraft to the storm, the scientists in back get to work by releasing dropsondes into the storm.

It only takes four minutes for the dropsonde to splash into the ocean, but the collected data is sent back to the airplane instantly. It is then checked for quality and forwarded on to the National Hurricane Center minutes later where is put into the hands of meteorologists and computer models all over the world.

Chief Reconnaissance Coordinator Warren Madden has flown in the hurricane hunter aircraft for years and now works on the ground in Miami at the National Hurricane Center.

He explains how the dropsonde is loaded into a chute inside the plane before being ejected out the bottom.

“We load the dropsonde in here and then they’ll close this to establish a seal and then when the time comes to release it, a little port will open up at the bottom of the aircraft and the spring will fire down and eject the sonde.”

Madden continues, “There’s a sensor here that records the temperature and humidity, there’s a barometer inside that reports the pressure as it falls and there’s also a GPS receiver in here. Four times a second as it falls it’s reporting back where it is and each second the computer here on the plane is taking all those reports and developing a wind profile based upon those position reports.”

The information gathered by the hurricane hunter team is vital to hurricane forecasting and has shown to improve it over the years. 

National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham agrees.

“To meteorologists, data is everything, so we have satellites we have information like buoys but to be able to send a plane right into a storm. Right into the eye, it gives us all sorts of information from the winds to the pressure and the size of the winds make a big difference in our forecast, helps us with our forecast, helps us with the warnings and the information gets in the models think about this the better the models the better the forecast the better decisions and It leads to lives saved.”

While all this sounds pretty easy on paper and to everyone else back on the ground, some of the flights can get a little “interesting.”

Lt. Colonel Jeff Ragusa is the hurricane hunter chief pilot and has been flying the C-130 for more than 20 years.

He says getting that data back from the hurricane can be quite a ride.

“It can range from nothing worse than a bad commercial airline flight to a ‘oh my gosh, what are we doing out here experience?’” Ragusa says.

He just wants us to remember one thing when a hurricane is heading for your house.

“I’m OK doing this. I’m OK asking my crew to do this as long as people back home make sure I’m not doing it for nothing.”

Ragusa wants to make sure everyone is prepared for the hurricane season. It runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

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