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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Quoting stormpetrol:
I suspect exFred will have an orange circle at 2pm.


I'm not sure...

Shear is down because an Upper Level Low moved atop the remnant low from Fred.

This isn't conducive to tropical development typically.... Looking for ridging/anti-cylone aloft.
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Quoting Orcasystems:
Just a reminder that SWMBO turns 50 Today :)

That may get me killed :)




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My thoughts on the tropics
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My public advisory on Super Typhoon Choi-Wan for 11AM

Alamagan Island in the Marianas took a direct hit from this monster.

My last advisory on Tropical Storm Koppu at 11PM

I caught up on all the advisories I missed since Sept 12th with the help on an archive I found.
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AOI

AOI

AOI

AOI


Just a reminder that SWMBO turns 50 Today :)

That may get me killed :)
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Quoting StormChaser81:


Unmanned Hurricane Hunter


works for me, good afternoon guys
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I suspect exFred will have an orange circle at 2pm.
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Just checking in...I see we now have 2 yellow circles...I guess things are going to start picking back up again?...

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Quoting iluvjess:
Not discounting the HHunters by any means because I appreciate their dedication and respect what they do. What are the chances that in the future, as technology advances, that flying manned missions into hurricanes will be a thing of the past?


Interesting. In my opinion, I don't think this is going to happen any time soon. The military has been looking at this same concept extensively. And even though unmanned aerial vehicles are the norm for many missions, manned missions are still preferred for most missions. Spatial cognition, "must have" instant decisions, the seat of the pants feel, are all difficult to obtain from a computer at a desk. Studies have been, and continue to be done on the pros and cons. One study I read (can't seem to find it on google) stated something to the effect that until the pilot at the joystick feels "in the theater of operation", the urgency needed for some decisions will be lacking. In other words, the adrenaline junkies are not as effective without the rush. Studies also suggest the human experience is necessary to get a real understanding of an event. (Those who have lived through a hurricane as I and many others here have can attest to that.)

And some people live for that kind of thing (think CycloneOz). If they didn't, they wouldn't do it until they were forced to retire.
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Unmanned Hurricane Hunter
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102. IKE
Quoting PcolaDan:


So will my electric bill!


Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting presslord:


That is actually an excellent question...and one I hope Dr. Masters will asddress...Can unmanned (unpeopled) aircraft accomplish the same objectives?
They have flown small unmanned aircraft into hurricanes before with success, but I have not heard anything lately on this project.
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 22312
Seems like the technology is probably already there. It's probably more of a funding issue than anything. If the military is capable of flying unmanned drones and aircraft into battle and recon missions then surely we could fly an unmanned mission into a hurricane for recon. I'm willing to bet that there isn't money in NOAA's budget to fund the developement of said aircraft since their work is not considered as important from a national security standpoint.
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Quoting IKE:


It's coming...by this time next week it should be diving into the SE USA. A protective shield from the tropics...cooler and drier weather. My air conditioner-less car will appreciate it.


So will my electric bill!
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Dr. M-

Chilling....

I applaud you and those who have mentioned the power of EMDR....it is a truly amazing form of therapy.
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Quoting iluvjess:
Not discounting the HHunters by any means because I appreciate their dedication and respect what they do. What are the chances that in the future, as technology advances, that flying manned missions into hurricanes will be a thing of the past?


That is actually an excellent question...and one I hope Dr. Masters will address...Can unmanned (unpeopled) aircraft accomplish the same objectives?
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Quoting iluvjess:
Not discounting the HHunters by any means because I appreciate their dedication and respect what they do. What are the chances that in the future, as technology advances, that flying manned missions into hurricanes will be a thing of the past?
That would be the best thing, We have lost one research aircraft in the Caribbean sea. I believe they lost 5 in the pacific.
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 22312
Quoting tornadodude:


They should make that, even a movie about it would be possible, and at the end they could have video of the damage that some "modern" hurricanes have caused and use it as a tool to show people why the hurricane hunters risk their lives, so that people know what to expect with a storm


What Dr. Masters and his crew went through that day would make an EXCELLENT NOVA special for PBS! I agree that showing the average person WHAT a Hurricane is REALLY LIKE would be a big help in educating the general public.
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Not discounting the HHunters by any means because I appreciate their dedication and respect what they do. What are the chances that in the future, as technology advances, that flying manned missions into hurricanes will be a thing of the past?
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Quoting IKE:
And look how much further south it goes at 240 hours on the 12Z GFS....


Thats the first significant "cold front" the NWS discussion mentioned yesterday in Houston.
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91. IKE
Quoting TampaTom:


Cooler weather for Florida? So soon? :-)


It's coming...by this time next week it should be diving into the SE USA. A protective shield from the tropics...cooler and drier weather. My air conditioner-less car will appreciate it.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting biff4ugo:
Dr. Masters' account of that Hurricane observation mission chronicles the event a bit better with more detail.
What is the name of the made for TV version?
There should be one.


They should make that, even a movie about it would be possible, and at the end they could have video of the damage that some "modern" hurricanes have caused and use it as a tool to show people why the hurricane hunters risk their lives, so that people know what to expect with a storm
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Quoting IKE:
And look how much further south it goes at 240 hours on the 12Z GFS....



Cooler weather for Florida? So soon? :-)
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Dr. Masters' account of that Hurricane observation mission chronicles the event a bit better with more detail.
What is the name of the made for TV version?
There should be one.
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My V.A. Dr.s here in NOLA have always said that sharing my experiences in a Group setting has been a Major Factor in my K PTSD recovery.


They also consider and have read my entries and stated that the hand written,communicated description of Trauma,esp after a Mass Casualty Incident,MCI,..that Katrina was for many,..is another direct way of easing and relaying to a willing or acceptive group that considers and relates to what we share.

All of us in this day and age can be and will be affected even by witnessing Events on a Grand scale on TV as 911 was.

Ike motivated a instant response from the wunderground members a year ago,as this Mass Media thing can do worthwhile missions of Mercy as well as divide...quickly when motivated to do so.

Its not unmanly or embarrassing to seek Mental Health Counseling after a Big Life Changing event,the ill effects are the same and complicated for both.

I too,thank Dr. Masters for sharing that side of his Harrowing Experience.
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the marianas now that hits home both my uncles were involved in the mariannas turkey shoot while my dad was involved in th continued push from the d-day invasion now want to talk about heroes those were heros always will be the greatest generation in my mind.
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83. IKE
And look how much further south it goes at 240 hours on the 12Z GFS....

Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
Quoting PensacolaDoug:
Marrianas?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Challenger_Deep
Check the story of the Trieste
There's another "that's enough research" trip.

"Their early departure from the ocean floor was due to their concern over a crack in the window caused by the intense pressure of their descent, and also because their landing on the sea bed had stirred up a cloud of debris which reduced visibility to zero and showed no sign of settling. They measured the depth as 10,916 m (35,814 ft)."
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For those of us fortunate enough to live on the coast of South Carolina, Hugo's impact will never be forgotten in our lifetime.

My parents lived in a house in McClellanville, SC when hugo came calling.



When you fly in the SC low country, you can still see evidence of thousands of trees down. Hope our state never has to deal with such a monster again!

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

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79. IKE
Look at the significant trough in the eastern USA in 168 hours(1 week from now)....12Z GFS..

Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
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77. JRRP
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 6212
Quoting NWWNCAVL:

Thanks...BTW...To all those who prayed for my daughter last week...THANK YOU...Surgery went well...REcovery was a few days longer than expected...But we are home and doing well...In fact my hurricane warning monitor is going off indicating she just awoke from her nap...BBL


Glad to hear she made it through alright, :), have a good one
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Boondockville, Pacific.
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As an Air Force (UK RAF) veteran (guess 29 years service makes me one??), I fully empathise with any persons who put their lives potentially on the line, especially in a calculated and clinical way such as the Hurricane Hunters do repeatedly - not the "cold heat of combat".
Dr M - your forthright courage in openly admitting what u call your "emotional fallout" may, hopefully, provide a path to "wellness" for many of our military persons (serving & retired) who either, currently suffer such stresses or, may do so in the future. I personally know more than enough who are in such circumstances.
All that said and done - flying with the Hurricane Hunters is still something that I would do with no hesitation - in the meantime, "Protect them All".
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Quoting tornadodude:


I think someone last night looked it up, and found that they are uninhabited, but one of them used to be an air base during WWII for America, I believe

Thanks...BTW...To all those who prayed for my daughter last week...THANK YOU...Surgery went well...REcovery was a few days longer than expected...But we are home and doing well...In fact my hurricane warning monitor is going off indicating she just awoke from her nap...BBL
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OIC
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Quoting PensacolaDoug:
Marrianas?


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Marrianas?
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Quoting NWWNCAVL:


Excuse my lack of knowlege...What islands are those and are they populated?


I think someone last night looked it up, and found that they are uninhabited, but one of them used to be an air base during WWII for America, I believe
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Quoting Melagoo:
Super Typhoon Choi-Wan

Link

Those tiny Islands must be taking a severe beating


Excuse my lack of knowlege...What islands are those and are they populated?
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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.

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