Giving thanks to the Hurricane Hunters and QuikSCAT scientists

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:54 PM GMT on November 21, 2007

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Everyone knows that flying into hurricanes is dangerous work. The NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft have flown a number of dangerous flights over the years, most recently in Hurricane Felix on September 2 this year. NOAA P-3 aircraft N42RF (affectionately called Kermit), penetrated a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Felix as it approached Category 5 intensity. The aircraft hit four G's of acceleration in both the up and down directions in Felix's eyewall. Regulations require a flight to be aborted at that level of turbulence, and Kermit returned to base. A detailed inspection of the aircraft the next day revealed no damage, and Kermit returned to service for the remainder of hurricane season.


Figure 1. A NOAA P-3 refuels in Cold Bay, Alaska (left) on its way to the Aleutian Islands to fly a mission in the 1987 Alaska Storms Program. Right: The two NOAA P-3's get de-iced at Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine, as they prepare for a mission into a 'Noreaster during the Experiment on Rapidly Intensifying Cyclones over the Atlantic (ERICA) in 1989. Both photos taken by yours truly.

What is less appreciated is that these aircraft fly research missions into dangerous weather conditions year-round and world-wide, and some of the most dangerous flights have occurred far from the tropics. Earlier this year, Kermit experienced perhaps the most dangerous flight of its 31-year career. On February 9, the aircraft flew into an intense winter storm 500 miles east of Newfoundland. The mission was part of the Ocean Winds project, a study designed to test the accuracy of QuikSCAT satellite wind estimates in regions of high wind and heavy rain. Flying at 3,000 feet, the aircraft sampled the surface winds with its SFMR (Step Frequency Microwave Radiometer) and dropsondes. The flights were timed to coincide with an overhead pass of the QuikSCAT satellite, which also measured winds at the ocean surface. It was a bit of a rough ride, since the storm packed winds of 100-110 mph at flight level. Sea spray kicked up by the powerful winds reached all the way to flight level, coating the windshield with a thick white coating of salt. The windshield washer failed, leaving the windshield partially opaque. It was an unusually dry winter storm, and the rain showers needed to rinse the windshield clean were difficult to find.


Figure 2. QuikSCAT wind profile of the ocean surface at 21:22 GMT February 9, 2007, just before Kermit headed back to St. John's, Newfoundland.

After a successful 4-hour flight, the aircraft dropped its final dropsonde, and turned north to complete its final sampling run. Suddenly, crew members observed flames coming from the #3 engine, accompanied by an audible popping sound. "Fire on #3, flames, flames, flames!" came the cry over the on-board intercom system. The pilots and flight engineers immediately began an emergency shut down of the #3 engine. As they worked to shut down the engine, the ominous call, "Fire on #4!" came over the intercom. The pilot immediately began an emergency shut down of the #4 engine. With both engines on the right wing now shut down, the pilot cautiously ramped up power on the two engines on the left wing, turned the aircraft towards home base in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and attempted to climb. However, the aircraft was not able to climb on just two engines, and the pilot was forced to begin a gradual descent to 2600 feet. The pilot notified the crew to review their ditching placards, and word was send to air traffic control informing them of the emergency. Three tense minutes passed, as the crew attempted to figure out what had caused the multiple engine failures. Speculation centered on the unusually heavy accumulation of salt on the aircraft--but excessive salt had never been implicated in engine failures before. Then, the words they all dreaded, "Fire on #1!" burst out over the intercom. The flight engineer immediately pulled the emergency shutdown handle for the #1 engine, and Kermit began a 700 foot per minute descent towards the turbulent sea below.

The crew donned survival suits as the pilot issued a May-day distress call and prepared to ditch the aircraft. Beneath them, hurricane force winds blew over the night-shrouded North Atlantic waters. With waves easily reaching 20 feet, water temperatures near freezing, and 500 miles out at sea at night, prospects for survival were dim. Four minutes remained to restart one of the flamed-out engines, and the pilot called for an immediate restart of the #1 engine. As the flight engineer worked to comply, Kermit passed through a brief rain shower that washed considerable salt from the aircraft. The attempt to restart the #1 engine succeeded, and Kermit pulled out of its descent just 800 feet above the waves--one minute from impact.

The crew now worked to restart the failed #3 and #4 engines, while the plane slowly climbed away from the ocean surface. As they headed towards Newfoundland, the Canadian Air Force launched a search and rescue C-130 aircraft from Nova Scotia to intercept Kermit. Crews on the Hibernia and Terra Nova oil rigs located east of Newfoundland were alerted of the emergency, and stood by to help if necessary. Kermit's navigator continuously plotted vectors to the oil rigs at they flew home, in case a ditch near one of the rigs became necessary.

As they continued westward, the crew successfully restarted both the #3 and #4 engines, but at reduced power. Kermit climbed to a more comfortable altitude of 14,000 feet and made it uneventfully back to St. Johns. Fortunately, the engines were undamaged and perfectly operational after the salt was washed out, and the data collected during the mission was saved. According to the detailed NOAA Mishap Investigation Report posted on Chris Mooney's excellent blog, "Post flight inspection of engines revealed significant white build up on intakes, first stage compressors, and CIP probes of all four engines. Subjectively, the #2 engine appeared to be the worst coated of all engines. Aircraft fuselage and windows were also heavily coated." Salt build-up on the engines was determined to be the cause of the incident. The unusually dry nature of the storm prevented the salt from being washed off, and was probably part of the reason the engines failed on this flight, and not on previous flights.

I asked Dr. Jim McFadden, project manager of the Ocean Winds project, what happened. He was on the flight, and responded:

This event stumped everyone including the experts who spend a life-time studying sea salt and aerosols in the marine boundary layer. Six previous flights in similar conditions had resulted in nothing like this. But this one was different. It was flown over an ocean warmed by the Gulf Stream in a dry slot of cold Canadian air. Somehow that combination was the key to what could have been a disastrous flight. Fortunately, quick thinking and the flawless action of the crew brought about by excellent training got us home safely.

Last week in Washington D.C., the crew of Kermit was honored with the Department of Commerce's Gold Medal for successfully bringing home the aircraft. The crew members from NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center who were on the flight were:

LCDR Mark Nelson
LCDR Carl Newman
Joseph Klippel
LCDR Peter Siegel
LCDR Joseph Bishop
Tom Shepherd
James Barr
Terry Lynch
William Olney
James McFadden

QuikSCAT scientists Paul Chang and Rob Contreras were also present on the flight.

Separate Department of Commerce Gold and Silver Medals were also awarded last week for scientists involved in leading NOAA's operational use of NASA's QuikSCAT satellite to produce more accurate forecasts and warnings of marine and coastal weather:

Paul Chang
Hugh Cobb III (NWS)
Roger Edson (NWS)
James Franklin (NHC)
Richard Knabb (NHC)
Eugene Legg
Kevin Schrab (NWS)
Joseph Sienkiewicz (NWS)

A Gold Medal is defined as distinguished performance characterized by extraordinary, notable or prestigious contributions that impact the mission of the Department and/or one operating unit and which reflect favorably on the Department. Congratulations to all the awardees, and thanks for all that you do!

Jeff Masters

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698. ShenValleyFlyFish
8:31 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Good morning all:
Thanks to Riverbender too. You pointed it out in the middle of night after I went to bed.I was working back through and hit Patrap first so good on the both of you as old timers say.
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696. ShenValleyFlyFish
7:41 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Thanks Patrap I needed a reminder there are still some wonderful folks on Planet Earth.
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695. Bonedog
7:32 AM EST on November 27, 2007
funny that as the sun rises today the temps are on their way down. Kinda makes your body go HUH?
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694. Bonedog
7:28 AM EST on November 27, 2007
leftovers. Been bad for quite sometime from what i hear from down there. Seems the last few years every time I come down there was a red tide for the whole time. I cant remeber when it has been this bad for this long
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693. polyu
12:28 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Please join this forum
http://centralwx.com/index.php
it is amaxing over 750 posts in less then a month
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690. Bonedog
7:01 AM EST on November 27, 2007
sullivan whats your take on the long term synoptic pattern developing?

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689. Bonedog
7:00 AM EST on November 27, 2007
oh well guess I will just ctrl C everything
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688. sullivanweather
11:57 AM GMT on November 27, 2007
Yeah, a few of my posts have drifted off into cyberspace as of late...
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687. Bonedog
6:55 AM EST on November 27, 2007
morning IKE
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686. BajaALemt
5:54 AM CST on November 27, 2007
Y'all have a good one today.....off to work
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685. IKE
5:54 AM CST on November 27, 2007
And good morning to everyone.
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684. Bonedog
6:52 AM EST on November 27, 2007
uh ok umm great the site is screwing up my posts now :/

6:52 gets posted before 6:49.... grrreeeaattt
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683. IKE
5:52 AM CST on November 27, 2007
You should see my driveway...ugh!

Almost 8 inches of rain here this month. Should be it for November. Maybe some arctic air heading into the SE USA in about a week.
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682. Bonedog
6:45 AM EST on November 27, 2007
I like that site because it has alot of information aranged really well. Basically one of those grab it quick sites.

Yea sullivan a few models have this storm doing like you said and transfering energy. I have seen the GFS, NAM, NGP all do it on the last few runs. I am waiting a little bit longer before I do my synopsis. My schedual right now is very hectic between work and home, I haven't really had time to sit down with all the information and begin to decypher it all.

But will say whatever happens it will be a wild ride the first week of December for much of the Nation.
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681. Bonedog
6:49 AM EST on November 27, 2007
not alot of rain here, maybe an inch, but got really windy last night. My guage registered a few gusts to 40 mph and one gust, not really sure about, went to 57mph.

Oh and we hit the high temp at 4am and its currently on its way down.
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680. BajaALemt
5:46 AM CST on November 27, 2007
Mornin Ike....thought about you watching the line come through nite before last...site I go to in niceville had 3 inches yesterday morning. We didn't get that much over here
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679. BajaALemt
5:41 AM CST on November 27, 2007
It should be illegal to have to be up THIS early *laffs* I have to leave for work in a few and the sun's not even up yet :))
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678. BajaALemt
5:40 AM CST on November 27, 2007
Stormchasing college..now THAT would be fun
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677. sullivanweather
11:39 AM GMT on November 27, 2007
Thanks Bonedog!

Amazing that the GFS has been rather consistant with this storm thus far.

Now, as we all know, when the storm is in the 4-6 day period is when the GFS starts getting all crazy before finally settling on a soultion once the storm is within 84hrs.

This is where the fun begins.
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676. IKE
5:35 AM CST on November 27, 2007
Lead singer for Quiet Riot...Kevin DuBrow...found dead Sunday.

Link

5.41 inches of rain yesterday...here in Defuniak Springs,Fl.
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675. Bonedog
6:37 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Found another great weather site. Has alot of information, great models page, advanced upper air data, and a few other goodies

NexLab

also has storm chasing stuff.
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674. Bonedog
6:35 AM EST on November 27, 2007
It is Baja
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673. Bonedog
6:32 AM EST on November 27, 2007
good job sullivan
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672. BajaALemt
5:32 AM CST on November 27, 2007
How sad :(
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671. Bonedog
6:31 AM EST on November 27, 2007
breaking news.. sean taylor died a few minutes ago in miami
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670. Bonedog
6:30 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Morning Baja

Morning Sullivan, I will go check it out.
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669. sullivanweather
11:27 AM GMT on November 27, 2007
Good morning, Bonedog.

I have an update on the Sunday/Monday storm in my blog.

Someone will be getting snow...lol
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668. BajaALemt
5:27 AM CST on November 27, 2007
It's the devil......lol

G'mornin Bone
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667. Bonedog
6:23 AM EST on November 27, 2007
uggg guess its a bad day for me today :/

look at my post number and the time :(

I hate it when that happens
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666. Bonedog
5:59 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Morning Everyone
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665. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
8:21 AM GMT on November 27, 2007
Joint Typhoon Warning Center

Tropical Disturbance Summary (0600z 27Nov)
==========================================
An area of convection (95W) near 13.2N 137.7E or 225 NM north of Yap Island. Recent animated multispectral satellite imagery depicts a slowly consolidating area of deep convection over a persistent low level circulation center. SSMIS image depicted persistent convective banding over the western semi circle supporting the currect position of the low level circulation center. Surface Observations from Yap indicates sustained northwesterly winds at 12-15 knots and a surface low pressure near 1001.8 mb with noteworthy 24 hours pressure falls of about 3 mb.

Overall, the environment is favorable with a developing anticyclone north of the center and weak vertical wind shear. Maximum sustained winds near the center is 18-22 knots with a minimum sea level pressure of 1000 mb. Based on improved organization, the potential for the development of a significant tropical cyclone within the next 24 hours is upgraded to GOOD.

Tropical Cyclone Formation Alert is now in effect. This alert may be re-issued, canceled, or upgraded to a warning by 0530z 28Nov.
Member Since: May 24, 2006 Posts: 52 Comments: 46907
664. flaboyinga
1:56 AM EST on November 27, 2007
A good night and a better tomorrow to one and all.
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663. Riverbender
6:20 AM GMT on November 27, 2007
Here is an article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune on an LSU prof assisting Bangledesh's efforts 2 weeks ago.

http://blog.nola.com/times-picayune/2007/11/by_mark_schleifstein_staff_wri.html
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662. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
4:40 AM GMT on November 27, 2007
T -MINUS 91 HRS 12 MINS GMT REMAIN OF 2007 ATLANTIC HURRICANE SEASON
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 178 Comments: 55976
661. ShenValleyFlyFish
10:31 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Truely from your mouth to God's ear. You couldn't have said it better if you'd a pulpit and a month of Sundays.
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660. flaboyinga
10:30 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Have a good night. Enjoyed it too. Didn't mean to step on any toes earlier. Later.
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659. ShenValleyFlyFish
10:27 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Well I think it's time to try for a little shut eye. Fun chatting with you Flaboy. Goodnight all.
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658. flaboyinga
10:21 PM EST on November 26, 2007
The price is already paid. But people aren't throw away items, so we're both in the rescue business. You participate one way and I participate in another way. That way we get to put something back for what we received.
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657. ShenValleyFlyFish
10:16 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Yea we can only hope that the little bit of good we manage to do will shorten our time on the mat.
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656. flaboyinga
10:05 PM EST on November 26, 2007
I hope he picks up your guitar and amazes you someday. I told my son I always prayed for the talent to play one, and God gave it to me, too. I just had to wait for my son to deliver it to us.(I figured you might use music as part of the program and his back was turned to the camera.) I put my fire station up because I spent a lot of time and effort building the dept and the building up from almost nothing.
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655. ShenValleyFlyFish
10:07 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Work at state Children's Psych Hospital. Ages 4-12 unit. As I tell the kids at work. "I could tell you more but then I'd have to kill you." lol
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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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