The Hurricane Hunters include crews from both the Air Force Reserve and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Although separate organizations, their missions do overlap. Both crews have an important part in understanding current conditions and improving forecasts down the road.
Both also stay busy even when the tropics turn quiet. Crews continue to fly missions throughout the winter months.
“Sometimes we’re busier outside of hurricane season. Because during hurricane season, we are here local waiting to fly and we wait for the weather to develop. Whereas for our winter projects, these things are planned well in advance.”
Paul Flaherty is the Science Branch Chief at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center. He is also a NOAA Flight Director and is constantly working on various weather missions.
Flaherty has traveled all around the world for his projects. This year he is the project manager for NOAA’s Atmospheric Rivers mission in Hawaii.
Atmospheric rivers are like “rivers in the sky” that transport water vapor. Flaherty says atmospheric rivers give the West Coast, specifically California, about 50% of their water in a year.
“It’s incredibly important to accurately forecast that, which we, as a whole, haven’t done a great job of. We just haven’t had the ability to do a great job over the past few decades. But with changes in climate, it’s becoming more and more important because they will either have a lot of rain coming in or they may have a drought.”
While atmospheric rivers may be unfamiliar to those on the East Coast, they are a common phenomenon on the West Coast. Atmospheric rivers can be big weather events. The Pineapple Express is an atmospheric river that brings moisture from the tropics near Hawaii to the West Coast.
When flying in and around atmospheric rivers, Flaherty describes the mission as having two purposes. The first is to help with the real-time forecasts so states can be prepared. The second will have longer impacts.
“We are out there to help with the forecast, but really the bigger part of it is to help with the research so we can better understand how these systems develop down the road and make better forecasts down the road,” says Flaherty.
As project manager, Flaherty is the interface with the world outside of the crew.
“So I sort of work as the conductor with everything coming in from every direction. And with the goal though, at the end of the day, is that we hopefully can provide a very successful platform, a successful crew and mission.”
NOAA has two different aircrafts focused on weather research. The WP-3D Orion has been flying since the mid-1970s! That aircraft is meant to fly low whereas the Gulfstream IV flies much higher. Both have an important instrument.
“Both aircraft, both platforms, have a very unique but very important tool called a tail doppler radar. And so regardless of the mission we are doing, that tail doppler radar allows us to go right to the storm and take slices through the storm to best understand its structure, its precipitation type, its movement, how fast everything is moving and things like that.”
Breaks can be hard to find since their work also continues into the spring and early summer months.
“We typically come out of our winter projects and roll what we consider our spring or early summer projects, which often includes things like the climate air quality studies or even tornadic research. So we roll into that and by the time June comes in we are already getting ready for hurricane season by June 1st. We have to be prepared no matter what.”
Flaherty and his crew know that no matter the mission, their work in the sky is helping us on the ground.
“We are so proud to serve. And I can draw a direct line, almost all year around, no matter what we are doing, I can draw a direct line from exactly what we are doing when I’m up there flying to helping someone on the ground.”
We are truly thankful for the hard work and extensive research done by the Hurricane Hunters all throughout the year.