A flight through Hurricane Hugo, remembered 20 years later

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:21 PM GMT on September 15, 2009

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The remains of Hurricane Fred continue to generate sporadic bursts of heavy thunderstorm activity over the middle Atlantic Ocean. These thunderstorms were generating winds up to 35 mph, according to this morning's QuikSCAT pass. Dry air and high wind shear of 20 - 25 knots today and Wednesday will continue to prevent regeneration of Fred. By Thursday, the chances for regeneration of Fred increase, since wind shear near Fred's remains will fall below 20 knots. However, continued high wind shear and dry air over the next two days will further disrupt the remains of Fred, and there may not be enough left of the storm to regenerate from by the time the wind shear drops. The NOGAPS model forecasts that Fred could regenerate by Sunday, when the remains of the storm will be approaching the Bahama Islands.

Satellite imagery shows a small circulation associated with a tropical wave about 200 miles west of the Cape Verdes Islands. Heavy thunderstorms activity has increased in this region over the past day. However, wind shear is near 20 knots, which is marginal for development, and shear will increase to near 30 knots as the wave progresses west-northwest into a band of high wind shear that lies to its north. It is unlikely that this wave can develop into a tropical depression this week, and NHC is giving it a low (less than 30% chance) of developing into a tropical depression by Thursday.

Tropical storm development is possible this week along a frontal zone stretching from the Bahamas northeastward. Anything that develops may end up being extratropical in nature, and would likely move northeastward out to sea.

The GFS model is predicting development of a new tropical wave coming off the coast of Africa early next week.


Figure 1. The remains of Hurricane Fred (left) appears as a swirl of low-level clouds with a clump of heavy thunderstorm activity on the northwest side. A tropical wave is 200 miles west of the Cape Verdes Islands (right), off the coast of Africa. This wave is probably under too much wind shear to develop.

A flight through Hurricane Hugo, remembered 20 years later
The events of September 15, 1989, have affected me more deeply than those of any other day in my life. The fifteen members of our crew very nearly became the first of Hurricane Hugo's many victims, and I am still grappling twenty years later with the emotional fallout from the experience. (If you are troubled by a traumatic experience, you may want to consider EMDR therapy, which I found to be helpful). The process of writing the story of that flight was also very therapeutic, and I worked intermittently for six years on the story while I was working towards my Ph.D. For those of you who haven't read it, do so! I worked very hard on it, and it is a remarkable story.


Figure 2. GOES visible satellite image of Hurricane Hugo taken on September 15, 1989. Image credit: Google Earth rendition of the NOAA HURSAT data base.

The Hurricane Hunters often carry reporters and camera crews on their flights, and the unlucky soul on our flight through Hurricane Hugo was young Janice Griffith of the Barbados Sun newspaper. Her account:

Horror of Hugo's Eye
TO a young reporter, with perhaps more journalistic curiosity than is good for her, it seemed a chance for a good story. To others, who were quick to tell me so, a flight into the centre of a powerful and dangerous hurricane was "sheer madness".

In the end, my journey Friday on a "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft with a hardened, professional crew was nerve-shattering, awesome, and unforgettable. When we limped back into Grantley Adams International after a beating from nature's fury in the form of Hurricane Hugo, I had my story. But I also had to agree that I must have been crazy to have gone in the first place.

Not that I wasn't forewarned.

You sure you want to go?" Dr. James McFadden, manager of the airborne science programmes of the United States Department of Commerce and head of the team asked when I raised the subject following their arrival from their Miami base on Thursday night. "It can be a very dangerous trip".

I wasn't fazed. After all, I'd flown a lot on commercial aircraft, from LIAT to large jumbo jets, and these hurricane hunter were experts who, I was assured, had been in the business of tracking storms in the Atlantic and Caribbean for a dozen years or more. Some had even been at it for 18.

They'd all been through and gone into the eyes of dozens of hurricanes and come back to tell the tale. Not even apprehensive as I, the only woman along with 10 men, boarded just before noon Friday and was shown to one of the four seats in the cockpit, just behind pilot Gerry McKim.

No hostess coming through with complimentary drinks here--or clicking on a seat belt. I was harnessed in like an infant in the rear seat of a car, waist and shoulders securely strapped. "Just in case", I was told.

While I observed, wide-eyed, everyone went about his business with the facility of someone who has done it all before a hundred times over--the pilot and co-pilot, Lowell Genzlinger, the flight engineer, the navigator, the weather experts. Everyone.

Calming effect
Their efficiency had a calming effect and the first half-hour or so, as we headed northeast to investigate and report on the details of Hugo's size and power, was no rougher than any commercial flight I've been on.

But then the sky began to close in with heavy, dark clouds and the 14-year old turboprop plane began to take the kind of buffeting it must have done several times during similar sorties.

The crew treated it all as a matter of course, getting on with their duties, checking radar and charts, communicating their information to headquarters in Miami, doing the other chores that seemed to keep everyone busy.

My notebook tells me we caught up with Hugo at 1:28 pm. For the next hour or so, I wondered why we ever tried--and I got the distinct impression almost everyone aboard wondered that too.

We were surrounded by clouds a dark gray, almost blue, color. The rain pelted down on the fuselage with an intensity that was deafening, like torrential rain on a galvanized roof and with a force that, it was later discovered, burst a small hole in the roof of the fuselage. When it was visible, the sea was almost black, like bubbling tar.

The computer print-out that had registered the wind speed from the time we took off peaked at 185 mph around this time.

We entered the eye--the area of low pressure that is completely calm and marks the centre of the hurricane--at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. Suddenly, my stomach seemed to become detached from my body as as the place dropped, I was told later, to 1,500 feet.

All hell seemed to break loose around and back of me. Briefcases, cups, soda-cans, books, anything unsecured came clattering down. The air conditioning shut down as did the radar and the weather computer. I just gripped the nearest arm and held on for dear life, realizing now why we had all been strapped in so tightly.

"That's unusual", flight engineer Steve Wade said when McKim and Genzlinger got back control of their plane. His attempt at sounding cool was father futile.

Dr. McFadden, a stocky man with gray beard and spectacles, came through, checking on us. He was visibly shaken.

"Everyone alright?" he inquired. We were but his face mirrored his concern when he told me: "This is the worst experience in all of our years going into a hurricane".

Soon there was to be even more. It was discovered that engine No. 3--the near right-side--had conked out. The pilots reported it was on fire and they had to shut it down. Another one was working but not at full capacity.

My life, I knew, rested in the skilled and experienced hands, and heads, of those in control of this wonderful piece of machinery. But, to tell the truth, I was never overcome by fear or panic. Somehow, I sensed all would be well.

Perhaps if I'd known more it would have been different, for we still had to find our way back out of the eye, to penetrate the wall again, and to gain elevation. To do that, on reduced power, meant jettisoning 7,000 of our 10,000 pounds of fuel to lighten the load and circling for an eternal hour while this was done.

Finally, a "weak spot" was found in the cloud formation and we could make an exit from the prison of the eye where we had been trapped for a frightening hour. Around us, winds were now registering 155 knots, and the plane was still being hammered by the weather.

But we were out of the eye and Dr. McFadden, in jubilant relief, exclaimed: "Let's get out of here". He echoed the feeling of everyone aboard.

The system engineer, Schricker ("that's it, don't worry about the first name", he said when I pressed) was more explicit. "I've been flying for 18 years and I don't think I want to fly again," he said.

As we got out of Hugo's clutches and left him to make his way towards the eastern Caribbean, Dr. McFadden put the experience in perspective for me. "You didn't really know what you went through," he said as we headed back to Grantley Adams, itching to back on Terra Firma. "We almost didn't get out of the eye. We almost didn't make it. It was a serious situation".

I believed him--and couldn't help wonder at the bravery of these men who so frequently risk their lives so that others may be saved from the destruction of the storms that head across the Atlantic annually between June and November.

They were working at Grantley Adams yesterday on getting that engine back into shape so that they could be ready the next time another one comes along.

They must be crazy!


Figure 3. An account of the September 15, 1989 flight through Hurricane Hugo posted by reporter Janice Griffith in the Barbados Sun newspaper.

Comments on Janice's story
The rain didn't really punch a hole the fuselage of our airplane as Janice reported. Also, we penetrated the eyewall at 1,500 feet, and dropped to 880 feet during the extreme turbulence in the eyewall. Other than that, Janice has the facts pretty well in hand, particularly the "They must be crazy!" part. Three of us--myself, radio operator Tom Nunn, and electronic engineer Terry Schricker--never flew again on a hurricane hunter mission. However, four members of that flight--Hurricane Field Program Manager Dr. Jim McFadden, Chief Systems Engineer Alan Goldstein, Navigator (now flight meteorologist) Sean White, and the director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, Frank Marks--continue to fly into hurricanes to this day.

I caught up with Janice Griffith via email last year, when I invited her to a "Hurricane Hugo survivors luncheon" for the twelve people from that flight who are still alive (alas, radio operator Tom Nunn, electronic engineer Neil Rain, and chief scientist Dr. Bob Burpee have passed on). Six of us got together at a hurricane conference in Orlando. Janice is still working as a reporter in Barbados, and couldn't make it. Her email to me:

"Nice Hearing from you.
Well after that trip into the eye of Hurricane Hugo,
I certainly will not be going on another.
We almost lost our lives.
And whenever I think about it...I just get some shivers".

Jeff Masters

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767. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
12:41 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
NWS Tiyan, Guam
Immediate Tropical Cyclone Advisory
SUPER TYPHOON 15W

...SUPER TYPHOON CHOI-WAN MOVING AWAY FROM THE MARIANAS...

THE TYPHOON WARNING FOR AGRIHAN HAS BEEN CANCELLED AS OF 1100 AM.

NO OTHER WATCHES OR WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT.


---
There's some good news
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45591
766. atmoaggie
12:40 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Astounding. That system I set up that sets off his house alarm whenever "Carolinas" or "Presslord" appears in the blog is still working prefectly.
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12463
765. ElConando
12:40 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
There was a time Presslord was normal, before JFV.
Member Since: September 6, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 3759
764. wunderkidcayman
12:40 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
hi guys can you send me the latest sat. of Choi-wan poss. large view of that area
Member Since: June 13, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 12150
763. presslord
12:39 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
...gecko...
Member Since: August 13, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 10492
762. atmoaggie
12:37 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Quoting aquak9:
atmo, you've been here at least three seasons. I already knew you were loony. :)

Good point. You either have to have been that way when you arrived or you become that way by season number 2.

Case in point: Presslord
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12463
760. MrstormX
12:35 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Quoting HadesGodWyvern:
Oh the NHC Guidance updated to 0:00AM, I see hurricane winds now.

0:00 AM UTC NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance


Indeed 72kts. is quite impressive I can't wait for the next advisory. If this became a TD I would not be surprised, I mean look at the thing its better looking than Danny eve was.
Member Since: May 27, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 4438
759. CaicosRetiredSailor
12:34 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Perspective...

I am in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I think it is correct to say that we are the closest land in the path of the Fred forecasts by models etc.

At this time Lake Erie is closer to me than Fred. (ie 1,300 miles)

Time enough to wait and watch.
Member Since: July 12, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 6049
758. canehater1
12:34 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Well Freddy isn't done yet, but seems to me if
the circulation does survive, the front with a low along it near the bahamas would pick it up.
Member Since: September 8, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 1078
757. aquak9
12:33 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
atmo, you've been here at least three seasons. I already knew you were loony. :)
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 166 Comments: 26049
755. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
12:33 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
750. Bordonaro 12:31 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Quoting HadesGodWyvern:
NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance

My friend, that's the forecast for the Pacific, look at the longitude coordinates!!

--
ya the site updated recently so the link I gave changed
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45591
754. Bordonaro
12:33 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Fred is kinda' like an Danny or an Erika, Jr!Computer models all need a frontal labotomy this year!!!
Member Since: August 25, 2009 Posts: 20 Comments: 6785
752. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
12:32 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Oh the NHC Guidance updated to 0:00AM, I see hurricane winds now.

0:00 AM UTC NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45591
751. atmoaggie
12:31 AM GMT on September 16, 2009
Quoting aquak9:
CRS and atmo, thank you for the posts.

I've REALLY had enough of fred, ericka was nerve-wracking enough, and I'm ready for Season™ to be over.

I'm getting too old for this.

Y'all thought I was loony last week when I said that Fred could possibly come close to the record for advisory numbers. Had he maintained a bit more over the last few days...
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12463
Quoting HadesGodWyvern:
NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance

My friend, that's the forecast for the Pacific, look at the longitude coordinates!!
Member Since: August 25, 2009 Posts: 20 Comments: 6785
Quoting HadesGodWyvern:
NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance has "FRED" expected to reach near hurricane again.. hmm

And the available models all agree pretty well.

Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12463
CRS and atmo, thank you for the posts.

I've REALLY had enough of fred, ericka was nerve-wracking enough, and I'm ready for Season™ to be over.

I'm getting too old for this.
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 166 Comments: 26049
747. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
LOL =)
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45591
VERY heavy blowup with both Fred and the CV wave behind it.
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24169
745. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45591
Quoting HadesGodWyvern:
NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance has "FRED" expected to reach near hurricane again.. hmm


OMG head for the hills Hades is talking about an Atlantic system!!!

LOL in all seriousness thanks for the posts from the C and W Pacific typhoon centers keeps things insteresting even when the Atlantic basin is not.
Member Since: September 6, 2009 Posts: 2 Comments: 3759
Wow that is quite the Typhoon!!
Member Since: May 27, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 4438
Quoting aquak9:
Why thank you, Dakster. I an just a little peeved at fred or whatever-it-is right now, and I really need convinced that this is not a CONUS threat.

No can do with this guidance, but it is a little early to say. We'll know more going forward...

Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12463
Quoting btwntx08:
wow fred keeps getting better each frame defenity orange at 2am

Quoting HadesGodWyvern:
NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance has "FRED" expected to reach near hurricane again.. hmm


Link please
Member Since: May 27, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 4438
Quoting aquak9:
Why thank you, Dakster. I an just a little peeved at fred or whatever-it-is right now, and I really need convinced that this is not a CONUS threat.


-----
233. StormW 3:38 PM EDT on September 15, 2009
... however I don't see regeneration on it's own. I really believe one of the other players I mentioned this morning in my forecast are gonna have to help it out.


Quoting StormW:
I have to leave for a bit.

Here's the deal with Fred moment:

1.) Dry air: Not related to the SAL...being caused by the downward motion of the MJO. Sinking air...warms as it sinks...dries the air. Begins at around 200 mb level. That's why you'll see convection flare up, and when it hits the level where the air is sinking...poof!

2.) Sitting in a TUTT axis right now. Won't develop in a TUTT axis. WHY? A trof axis is drawn on a map, where the wind changes direction or shifts. This shift can be as little as 20 deg. Sudden change in wind direction = Directional shear.

3.) Stable atmosphere caused by the dry and sinking air...evident of the "popcorn" clouds noted on visible imagery.


Member Since: July 12, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 6049
729, 731

I said I wanted reasons why it would NOT be a CONUS threat, ok?

Ya'll going all WS on me or WHAT?
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 166 Comments: 26049
Wow Fred is back, and with vengeance!!
Member Since: May 27, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 4438
732. amd
Quoting zebralove:
ok so for a hurricane to have a good chance of building windshear should be 20 or less right? and what should the numbers be for good chance of building for convergence and divergence.....most optimal number. You said negative is bad for building but what is optimal numbers? thanks again for helping me to understand this stuff a little more every day


For CIMSS, the higher the numbers, the more optimal for development. I'm not sure of the exact numbers needed for possible development for convergence and divergence, but I would think that a value of 10 or above directly associated with the center of a system would be helpful for development. For instance, with the super typhoon in the western pacific, both convergence and divergence have values above 30.

Link

In terms of development, wind shear limits are generally below 20 knots because for tropical systems to strengthen, they must be able to build thunderstorms throughout the atmosphere. Once shear goes above 20 knots, detachment of thunderstorms from a budding or even mature circulation can occur (see hurricane fred during its weakening phase).
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731. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
NHC Tropical Cyclone Guidance has "FRED" expected to reach near hurricane again.. hmm
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45591
don't see anyone taking my request to task, tho...
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 166 Comments: 26049
LSU Earth Scan Lab is beginning to see Fred's signature once again also!

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting aquak9:
Why thank you, Dakster. I an just a little peeved at fred or whatever-it-is right now, and I really need convinced that this is not a CONUS threat.


You're welcome and I share your sentiment.
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10435
ok so for a hurricane to have a good chance of building windshear should be 20 or less right? and what should the numbers be for good chance of building for convergence and divergence.....most optimal number. You said negative is bad for building but what is optimal numbers? thanks again for helping me to understand this stuff a little more every day
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Why thank you, Dakster. I an just a little peeved at fred or whatever-it-is right now, and I really need convinced that this is not a CONUS threat.
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 166 Comments: 26049
719. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
905
TCNA21 RJTD 160000
CCAA 16000 47644 CHOI-WAN(0914) 18186 11434 12334 270// 93008=

0:00 AM UTC September 16 2009

STY Choi-wan (T0914) [System #18]
18.6N 143.4E
Dvorak Intensity: T7.0

---
no change in intensity
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 51 Comments: 45591
Quoting Stormchaser2007:


It would be unfathomable if Choi-wan was off the SE US coast. Its absolutely huge.


Just extremely destructive, with large loss of life and property. If it hit Florida would most likely bankrupt the state and force hundreds of thousands to move to Patraps neighborhood.
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10435

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.