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A new airplane for the hurricane hunters

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 4:45 PM GMT on May 01, 2006

If you have a copy of Google Earth, try zooming in to take a look at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona. Included amongst the thousands of retired airplanes in the desert is one lucky 4-engine turboprop P-3 Orion, used by the Navy for anti-submarine warfare. This sword will soon be beaten into a plowshare, for it will serve as NOAA's next weather research aircraft. Stung by criticism that neither of our top hurricane hunter aircraft--the two P-3 Orions operated by NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center (AOC)--were available to fly during 2004's Hurricane Charley, since they were off flying other weather research projects, the government has allocated $11 million to buy a new P-3 for weather research. According to Dr. Jim McFadden, head of science programs for the AOC, the new P-3 will not be used for hurricane work, but instead will be outfitted to do other weather reasearch, such as air pollution projects. This will free up the two current P-3s for the entire hurricane season, so they can concentrate exclusively on hurricane work. No funding has yet been procured to finance the additional staff required by NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center to operate the new P-3, but this funding has been promised by NOAA.

Figure 1. The NOAA P-3 Orion hurricane hunter aircraft. Image credit: NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center.

The new P-3 is scheduled to come on-line in 2008 or 2009, but we could sure use it this hurricane season! Only one P-3 is scheduled to be available for hurricane work. The other P-3 is currently in Standard Depot Level Maintainence (SDLM), a 5-month process the airplanes undergo every seven years, where they are basically gutted down to the frame and rebuilt. As part of this year's SDLM, the P-3 will also be undergoing a Special Structural Inspection (SSI), where every rivet is X-rayed and the entire frame closely inspected for stress cracks caused by the severe turbulence the aircraft flies through. When the P-3 completes SDLM, it will undergo a month-long process to outfit it with special instrumentation to perform air pollution research. The P-3 is scheduled to be ready by August to fly again, and it is slated to spend the peak months of hurricane season--August and September--in Houston for an air pollution field program. Should the other P-3 suffer some crippling mechanical problem that would put it out of hurricane flying action for an extended period, the P-3 in Houston will be summoned to fly hurricanes. This can only happen after a 3-day effort to take all the sentitive air pollution instrumentation off of the airplane, as these instruments cannot survive high turbulence.

Since only one P-3 will be available for the 2006 hurricane season, we'll have only one Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) instrument flying. The SFMR is an airborne remote sensing device that can infer surface wind speeds in a hurricane by looking at the brightness of the sea surface. The SFMR measurements were used heavily by NHC in 2005 to determine how much of the coast needed hurricane and tropical storm warnings. The U.S. Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron C-130 hurricane hunter aircraft are scheduled to receive the SFMR instruments, but this will not happen in time for the 2006 hurricane season, according to Dr. McFadden.

What's interesting about the new P-3 purchase is that no big press release about it was made--at least that I can find. It is strange that an administration concerned about its image after the Katrina disaster wouldn't emphasize its commitment spend more money to help out hurricane reconnaissance. In addition to the new P-3, the administration has also proposed in its 2006 budget to spend $1.4 million to improve hurricane data buoys and operations in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Oceans. Unfortunately, little new money has been approved or promised to fund more hurricane research. While I give the Bush Administration credit for these much-needed expenditures, I believe that the money proposed to fix the ailing buoys might have been better spent funding NOAA's Hurricane Research Division to do more research to improve our poor hurricane intensity forecasts.

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.