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A flight through Hurricane Hugo, remembered 20 years later

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

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


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.