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What it's like to fly into a Category 5 hurricane

by Michael Hopper
Sep 10 2017, 10:41am

Even with all the technology at the U.S. government’s disposal, the best way to gather data from a hurricane is still the hard way: flying into the storm in a propeller plane.

That’s exactly what the men and women of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron do. Better known as the “Hurricane Hunters,” this all-reserve Air Force unit is tasked with piloting their WC-130J aircraft directly into the eye of a hurricane.

VICE News secured a ride with the Hurricane Hunters as they flew into Hurricane Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. The Hurricane Hunters don’t fly into storms for fun; during their flight an array of instruments collect and transmit data used to predict how active storms will develop and move.

As our 12-hour flight prepared to depart Friday afternoon, Irma had already made devastating landfall in the Caribbean. Evacuation orders had been issued for parts of Southern Florida as residents there prepared for Irma’s arrival.

At takeoff, the storm had been downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane and sensors indicated that Irma’s eye wall had become somewhat disorganized. But our in-flight meteorologist Major Nicole Mitchell explained that wasn’t necessarily a sign that the storm was weakening. Rather, it could be a sign that Irma was preparing to strengthen again.

Hurricane Hunter planes fly in an X pattern, where the center of the X is located in the hurricane’s eye. While in the air, the plane is constantly collecting and transmitting data. The plane’s nose and wings are equipped with radar arrays and air sensors that collect meteorological data.

In the load area behind the cockpit, Technical Sargent Karen Moore, our flight’s dropsonde operator, prepares a series of probes that are dropped into the hurricane’s eye wall. Think of a weather balloon that falls directly into the storm. The probes are parachuted out of the plane and transmit data about wind speed and direction, pressure, and the relative humidity at various altitudes – all critical information to predict a storm’s path. This data informs warnings to vulnerable towns and cities.

As Mitchell explained, the combined data from the sensors allow forecasters to have a “3-D image of the storm.”

Satellites and on-the ground radar aren’t able to paint as accurate a picture of storms as weather planes. Earlier in the week, Mitchell had flown into what was then Tropical Storm Katia. Mitchell said that not only did they discover satellite projections for the location of Katia’s eye were off by 40 miles, but in-flight data demonstrated that Katia was in fact a hurricane, not a tropical storm.

Data collected during our flight indicated that Irma had again intensified to Category 5, a measure of destructive potential that’s based on the storm’s sustained wind speed.

From takeoff in Biloxi, Mississippi, it took about two and a half hours to reach the storm’s edge. Our pilot, Lt. Col. Jim Hitterman, had made 40 or 50 of these flights and had breached the eye wall of hurricanes more than 200 times. No two storms are alike, Hitterman said, assuring us that flying into Irma, despite its strength, was a “relatively smooth ride.”

“Relatively smooth” for a Hurricane Hunter, that is. As you approach the outer edge of the storm, the first thing you notice is the change in cabin pressure – like when a commercial jet makes a steep climb. But this happens with the plane staying perfectly level.

Then the plane begins to shake. It’s the kind of turbulence that would cause a flight attendant to call for passengers to “fasten your seatbelts” in a nervous tone. Stiff lateral shakes and sharp drops in altitude were frequent during our flight. In all but the most serious turbulence, the flight crew was totally comfortable walking around the grip-taped deck of their C-130.

As the plane approaches the eye wall, the shaking becomes more pronounced, lightning strikes out the window become more frequent, and the tone of the propellers rapidly increases and decreases in pitch as the pilots fight their way into the storm’s center.

Then the shaking more-or-less stops. This is the eye of the hurricane. From the cockpit and out the windows of the fuselage you can see steep walls of clouds that make up the hurricane’s eye. For about 10 or 15 minutes the skies are calm, then the plane prepares to breach the eye wall all over again.

Our flight made four passes through Irma’s eye as the storm brushed the northern coast of Cuba. During the Atlantic hurricane season while storms are active, the 10 flight crews of the 53rd Squadron makes no less than three of these flights every day.

CORRECTION Sept. 11, 2017, 3:30 p.m.: A prior version of this video misstated the title of Sgt Karen Moore. She works as a “Dropsonde Operator.”