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Into The Eye Of A Hurricane

The first pilot to fly through a tropical storm did it on a dare; today, hurricane flights are vital - and routine.

Have you ever flown in an airliner that passed through cotton-ball clouds, maybe even through rainy weather? Remember how bumpy the ride was until your plane broke into clear skies? Airline pilots fly around storms or go through them as quickly as possible to avoid such jolts. They want to keep you and the other passengers safe.

Some pilots fly right into some of the planet's most dangerous storms for the same reason: to help keep people safe. The information these planes collect about the storms, known as hurricanes, help forecasters warn people.

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No one flies into more hurricanes (1,200 hours a year, on average) than the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

Some crew members work for the Air Force all year. Others are reservists - part-time members. When they aren't flying as "hurricane hunters," these men and women work as airline pilots, computer programmers, game wardens, teachers, and at other jobs.

Satellites watch Earth's weather from space. So why fly into hurricanes?

Weather satellites see only what happens at the cloud tops. Flying through hurricanes lets you see what's happening inside. "There's no substitute for penetrating storms," says Naomi Surgi. She works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US government agency that runs the hurricane-forecasting center in Miami.

The 53rd's pilots fly where few others dare. That's no surprise, because the squadron itself started as a dare.

In World War II, two Army Air Corps pilots dared each other to fly into a tropical storm. (Tropical storms grow into hurricanes under the right conditions.) Their planes weren't big "hurricane hunters." They were small, one-engine, two-seat planes used to train fighter pilots.

On July 27, 1943, Maj. Joe Duckworth flew his trainer into a tropical storm. Rather than leave the second seat empty, he asked a navigator to fly with him, to report the storm's position. He went back with a weather officer.

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The next year, the weather-reconnaissance squadron was born.

Today, the squadron boasts 10 airplanes, known as WC-130s. They have no special reinforcing for strong winds - they don't need it. They were designed as cargo planes, so they're pretty tough. But they do have four powerful turboprop (propeller) engines, an extra fuel tank, and computerized weather instruments. These flying weather stations can stay out for 15 hours, feeding information about storms to the National Hurricane Center, which issues hurricane forecasts.

WEATHER instruments on board tell about conditions at the plane's height. The crew also drops instrument packages through a storm. These "dropsondes" send back weather data until they hit the ocean.

Flying in one of these WC-130s, as I did recently during hurricane Georges, is a bumpy, no-frills experience. Box lunches (two sandwiches, chips, fruit, milk, soda, and a granola bar) cost $2.50. Some crew members bring frozen pizza to cook in the plane's microwave.

The inside of the plane looks like the set of an MTV rock video: lots of pipes, cables, and air-conditioning ducts along the high ceiling. When the plane flies at low altitudes in hot, humid air, cold air streams out of the air-conditioning vents in white clouds. Seats run along the side of the fuselage. They're made of criss-crossed webbing that looks like your car's seat belts. During long flights, you can sleep in one of the overhead bunks; just make sure your waist belt is fastened and your feet aren't dangling.

And forget about polite, quiet conversation. The plane has no sound-proofing, so it's very noisy. Crew members wear earplugs. To talk with one another over the plane's intercom, crew members wear bulky headphones with little microphones attached.

So how bumpy is the ride? Traveling to and from the storm is pretty peaceful. But once you start to fly in and out of the bands of thunderstorms that spiral out from the center of a hurricane, it can get bouncy. The roughest part comes when you enter the strongest part of the storm, the "eye wall." It's a thick wall of clouds around the center, or eye, of the storm.

Weather forecasters need to know how strong the winds are at the eye wall. The plane then enters the eye and radios the position of the storm's exact center. Planes crisscross the eye to get data.

The 53rd isn't the only US government group to fly into storms. NOAA, which runs the National Hurricane Center, also has hurricane planes. The NOAA Corps has two P-3 Orions (Miss Piggy and Kermit) and a twin-engine corporate-style jet (Gonzo) that has been modified for weather measurements.

Miss Piggy and Kermit fly into the heart of tropical weather. Most often, the people on board are researchers trying to learn more about these storms so they can improve the forecasts the Hurricane Center produces. Gonzo flies very high, up to 45,000 feet, and gets no closer than about 100 miles to a hurricane's eye. Gonzo gathers information on the air currents thought to steer hurricanes.

Information from NOAA's and the 53rd's planes travels via satellite to the National Hurricane Center and to the National Center for Environmental Prediction in Camp Spring, Md. NCEP has large computers that use current weather conditions to forecast the weather up to three days into the future.

All this work is paying off. Predictions of when and where a hurricane will strike land are improving each year. Based on such predictions, the 53rd moved its planes to safer bases three days before hurricane Georges struck the Gulf Coast just west of Biloxi!

* A partially animated version of the hurricane graphic is available on the Monitor's Web site at:

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