Hurricanes are the largest storms on Earth and can be the most damaging. Yet, there are a group of scientists that fly right into the heart of the storm. Meteorologist Sonya Stevens got the chance to talk with one of the crew members about what it is like aboard the Hurricane Hunter.
“For most of the flight it’s actually no worse than your normal commercial airliner flight,” said aircraft commander Barry Choy. Barry has been flying into tropical systems since 2004. “The storms vary in intensity and you can’t really tell which one is going to be the one to give you the big bump.”
Choy said, “What happens is when we start going into the storm we go through these series of rainbands and they can be quite rough. It’s usually for a short period of time. When we go into the eyewall itself of a hurricane, it’s a pretty bumpy ride.”
But once they break out into the eye, it is suddenly nice and smooth. “Inside the eye is just magnificent; blue sky above, sea surface below. It looks like you are in a big white coliseum. We call it kind of the coliseum effect,” described Choy.
Throughout the flight, the crew drops meteorological instruments into the storm. “The eyewall is of importance, so a lot of times we do an eyewall drop and then also the center because we need the minimum central pressure,” Choy said.
That minimum central pressure is what helps tell us the intensity of the storm. This, and all of the other weather parameters, are sent back to the National Hurricane Center in real-time. Meanwhile, the crew continues their 8 to 10 hour trip, flying in and out of the storm several times.
“We generally fly between 5,000 and 10,000 feet,” added Choy. The planes fly much lower into tropical depressions, roughly 1,500 feet above the sea surface. They fly much higher in stronger storms, but do try to stay below 12,000 feet, in order to limit the chances of getting struck by lightning. “Occasionally, with a discharge or a lightning strike, we can have small damage to the plane. Usually have a little burn hole or something and it usually occurs on the trailing edge of the wing,” Choy said.
It is the actions of these brave scientists that help keep you safe during hurricane season.