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Hurricane Hunters touch down in Gander


GANDER, NL – A portion of the apron at Gander International Airport was scattered with United States Air Force pilots, decked out in blue flights suits and dark brown aviator jackets Sunday. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hurricane Awareness Tour made its only Canadian stop on their east coast tour. While the sight was somewhat reminiscent of a scene from ‘80s blockbuster movie “Top Gun”, these pilots are aces of a different breed. 

They hunt, and fly into, hurricanes. 

“We try to pick the best ways to go through a hurricane,” Lt.-Col. Shannon Hailes told the Beacon. “But there is no hurricane we won’t go through, we’ve gone into every one they have ever asked us too.” 

The program has nothing to do with proving flight prowess; NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters program is all about monitoring severe weather events and data collection. The data collected is used in real time to predict the path and ferocity of hurricanes. Hailes says even with technology today, data collected by the team can increase the accuracy of a forecast by 30 per cent.

“The satellite’s see a lot of stuff on top, but they don’t get down to earth,” said Hailes. 

“What everybody want’s to know is what’s happening on surface, they don’t want to know what’s happening on top of the hurricane, because nobody’s ever been killed by the top of a hurricane.”  

The team brought along some of their big guns in the hunt for hurricane data, a Lockheed WC-130J, and a Gulfstream G-IV. 

“The C-130 will fly directly into the core of the tropical system and what they are collecting is generally the intensity and direction of the hurricane,” said Environment Canada Emergency Preparedness meteorologist David Neil. “This data is obliviously very important for tracking, and to have that real time data to create a much better short term forecast.” 

Both planes have been specially equipped with weather data collection systems on board, but are otherwise unmodified. Except for some special detailing. The G-IV, nicknamed Gonzo, is capable of an astounding Mach 7.7 according to NOAA Core pilot Lt. Dave Cowan. The jet is used to drop sensors, called dropsondes, into the hurricane to collect data from the heart of the event.

“This aircraft flies above the storm between 40,000 and 45,000 feet and we put out the dropsondes,” said Lt. Junior Grade, Billy Bonner.  “As (it) falls through the air, we can get sense of wind speed and direction.”

The device also contains a temperature sensor, monitors pressure and is tracked by GPS. The devices cost roughly $7000 per unit, are made of 85 per cent biodegradable materials and are considered completely expendable. They are deployed using a chute at the rear of the plane, and scientists onboard monitor and collect the data. The team typically drops 30 to 40 of the devices per flight. Although the endeavor may seem costly, Hurricane Igor in 2010 accounted for roughly $65 million in homeowner claims relating to storm damage in Newfoundland and Labrador alone. 

The destruction wreaked by hurricanes is not only measured in dollars. According to data available on NOAA’s website, hurricanes accounted for an average of 43 deaths between 2006-15 in the United States. Members of the team said the purpose of the tour is to remind the public in communities typically affected by hurricanes to prepare for the upcoming season.

How to fly into a hurricane

Using the WC-130J the flight crew approaches the strongest winds in the hurricane. The plane is then gradually turned into the wind, a manoeuvre called crabbing, until the plane punches through the eyewall into the calm eye of the event. 

The eyewall is the ring of strongest winds closest to the eye, and the plane must fly through it to collect the required data. 

Crew members said while there are usually some bumps on the way through, the airplane is designed to withstand the forces with no special modifications. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers a chance for anyone to experience what it’s like to fly into a hurricane with “Cyber Flight” on their website: http://www.hurricanehunters.com/cyberflight.htm

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