Flying into a record Nor'easter

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:40 PM GMT on February 15, 2006

Blizzard of 2006: a Category 3 storm
Before we talk about flying into one of the most severe Nor'easters of all time, lets mention the Blizzard of 2006 once more. NOAA has classified the storm as a Category 3 storm on the new NESIS storm scale, two notches down from the most severe kind of blizzard. While the Blizzard of 2006 set snowfall records in New York City and Hartford, the overall size of the area affected was lower than in mega-blizzards like the Superstorm of 1993 that earned Category 5 rankings.

Tale of a record-breaking Nor'easter
If you're wondering what the NOAA Hurricane Hunters do in the winter when they're not flying hurricanes, the answer is simple--they're somewhere else where the weather is bad! During my four years with the Hurricane Hunters, I regularly spent my summers in the tropics and winters in the Arctic. I logged over 25 missions into intense winter storms as part of field projects based in Norway, Alaska, and the U.S. During the winter of 1989, we were stationed at Brunswick, Maine for three months as part of the Experiment on Rapidly Intensifying Cyclones over the Atlantic (ERICA). This project utilized the two NOAA P-3 research aircraft and the another aircraft with Doppler radar, the NCAR Electra, to provide an unparalleled data set documenting the life cycle of ten North Atlantic extratropical cyclones. During one of these flights, we caught the central Atlantic's most intense winter storm on record.

Figure 1. The ground crew de-ices NOAA's P-3 winter storm hunter aircraft in preparation for chasing a Nor'easter that buried the Brunswick, Maine operations base with a foot of snow.

On January 3, 1989, a strong extratropical cyclone moved off the coast of North Carolina, and pulled a large mass of Arctic air over the ocean behind it. As the cyclone crossed the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, where water temperatures were over 70 degrees, the storm "bombed". It's central pressure fell 66 mb in 18 hours to an astounding 936 mb--a pressure typical of a Category 3 or 4 hurricane! Post-analysis of the data suggested that the pressure fell even further, to 928 mb. This was the lowest pressure ever observed in an Atlantic extratropical cyclone south of 40 degrees latitude in the 20th century. But since the storm never affected land, few people outside of the research community have ever heard of it, and it doesn't even get a ranking on the NESIS scale.

I was tasked to be flight director on the daytime January 4 mission into this storm, dubbed Intensive Operating Period 4 (IOP 4). As I drove to work that morning on treacherously icy roads, I reflected on the fact that this part of my day would probably the most dangerous part--not this afternoon's flight at low altitude into a hurricane-strength winter storm! Although I had had a few rough flights on my 20 or so missions into winter storms, none had ever compared to flying into a hurricane. There isn't much deep convection in a winter storm out over the ocean, since the water is usually too cold to support intense thunderstorms. Deep convection creates sudden updraft and downdrafts--the kind of turbulence that is a bane to aircraft.

Figure 2.Visible satellite image of the ERICA IOP 4 January 4, 1989 cyclone--the most intense winter cyclone ever measured in the central Atlantic.

At our pre-flight briefing, though, I began to wonder if maybe the most dangerous part of the day lay ahead! The flight crew from the just-returned midnight flight reported that the storm was entering a rapid deepening cycle. They encountered intense lightning and moderate turbulence in some of the rain bands. The morning satellite imagery confirmed that we were dealing with a true monster--none of us could ever remember seeing such huge storm over the Atlantic.

We took off and droned southeastwards towards the storm. As we neared the storm, we noticed that it's far-flung rain and snow bands painted our radar displays with bright patches of color we were unused to seeing in a winter storm. The nose radar, which had a special algorithm to plot turbulent areas in a bright purple color, was showing the the first purple I had ever seen in an extratropical cyclone. As we approached the north side, we descended to 350 meters (1150 feet) in altitude and prepared to penetrate the center of the storm.

"SET CONDITION ONE!" crackled pilot Ron Phillipsborn's voice over the aircraft's loudspeakers and intercom. When announced by the Aircraft Commander, Condition One requires all hands to return to their seats and prepare for turbulence. Throughout the airplane, the crew stashed away flight bags, clip boards, and other loose items that could turn into dangerous missiles in severe turbulence, and buckled up their heavy-duty seat belts.

We plowed through an intense band of snow and rain that rocked the aircraft. The winds jumped to 60 mph. Glimpses of the ocean below revealed a maelstrom of white-capped, wind-whipped 20-foot waves.

"Whoa, that was a pretty intense band!" I remarked over the intercom as we emerged from the band and the turbulence subsided. "Ron, are you happy at 1200 feet?" I asked the pilot, who had just joined the Hurricane Hunters, and had yet to fly a mission into a hurricane.

"No problem!" Ron replied. He held us on course for a penetration straight through the center of the cyclone. When we reached the calm center, there was no spectacular view like one sees in a hurricane--the center of this storm was surrounded by clouds. But there was plenty of excitement among the science team, headed by Dr. Mel Shapiro of NOAA.

"Did you see that pressure?" Mel exclaimed. "941 millibars! And what a temperature jump--we've got an incredible amount of warm air at the core of this storm. And check out out those SST's--70 degree water. No wonder we're seeing such impressive convection!" Indeed, the radars showed an impressive amount of intense echoes on all sides of us.

We continued southward, then cut across the cold front. As we crossed the cold front, we hit a remarkable updraft of 7.5 m/s (17 mph). All around us, huge cumulonimbus clouds pushed upwards by the tremendous lift along the front lit up with impressive lightning displays. As we crashed through the front, the surface winds picked up to 100 mph, and some hard, jolting bumps of turbulence rocked the airplane. This was like flying through a Category 2 hurricane! An awesome parade of 35-foot high waves whipped into a green-white froth rolled beneath us.

"Hey Ron!" I exclaimed as we emerged into the clear beyond the cold front. "How does it feel to fly through a Category 2 hurricane?"

"No problem!" Ron replied. He was handling the turbulence like a veteran.

We turned back towards the center again. It was time to take another reading of the storm's central pressure to see how much it had deepened. As we approached the center, once more we encountered bands of showers with strong turbulence. This storm was getting to be a bit of a pain! Finally, we punched into the center again.

"Whoo-eee!" I exclaimed, as winds went calm and the lowest pressure flashed onto the monitors. "936 millibars! That's got to be a record!"

"Fantastic!" agreed Mel. "Let's go check out the triple point now." The triple point is where an extratropical cyclone's cold front, warm front, and occluded front all meet, and is often the most turbulent portion of the storm.

We turned east towards the triple point, and our ride steadily grew rougher and rougher. Frequent intense bands of showers rocked the aircraft, and the ominous purple color of turbulence grew more and more concentrated on the nose radar. Ron did his best to sneak through gaps in the clouds to avoid the worst of the turbulence, but it was still a rough, uncomfortable ride. Finally, the radar showed no more soft spots--we were surrounded on three sides by thunderstorm cells showing some very nasty-looking purple radar echoes.

"Uh, Jeff, what do you think we should do here?" Ron asked, sounding uneasy about the mass of purple directly in front of us.

I took a moment to study the radar display before replying. "Let's get out of here! U-turn, back the way we came!"

"You got it!" agreed Ron happily, immediately banking the the big plane over into a 180-degree turn.

"Ron, Jeff, I think its time to do some high-altitude work!" agreed Mel. We were more than happy to oblige, and climbed to 18,000 feet to study the upper-level structure of the cyclone for a while.

The January 4, 1989 flight into the IOP 4 storm marked the only flight I'd ever been on where we performed a U-turn to escape severe turbulence. Despite not directly measuring the most interesting part of the storm, we were able to capture the best data set ever of an extratropical cyclone tapping the warm waters of the Gulf Stream to become a hybrid warm-core system.

Figure 2. Sea Surface Temperature in degrees C on January 4, 1989, and the track of the IOP 4 cyclone. Numbers in parentheses are the saturation water vapor mixing ratio in g/kg. Image credit: Neiman, P.J., and M.A. Shapiro, "The Life Cycle of an Extratropical Marine Cyclone. Part I: Frontal-Cyclone Evolution and Thermodynamic Air-Sea Interaction", Monthly Weather Review: Vol. 121, No. 8, pp. 2153-2176, doi: 10.1175/1520-0493(1993)1212.0.CO;2.

My next update will be on Friday, when I'll probably talk about hurricanes and global warming again.

Jeff Masters

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63. DenverMark
2:43 PM GMT on February 17, 2006
Arcturus,again thanks for posting Dr.Hansen's article. I read it carefully. In the past, I considered him a bit alarmist, but one has to take these observations seroiusly. I was very upset that the Bush administration tried to censor him. We need to carefully consider what everyone in the scientific community has to say. A good starting point in the U.S. would be to improve our fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles significantly. The automakers took advantage of loopholes in the current standards to create the SUV / monster truck culture we have now. We can't all ride bicycles everywhere, but we can have more fuel efficiency without drastically disrupting our economy. On the other hand, the U.S. shouldn't be expected to make all the sacrifices while China, India, etc. get a free ride to pollute all they want. Could there be a connection between the acceleration of the warming trend in the past 10 years and the steep increase in fossil fuel consumption in so-called "developing" countries with booming economies such as China?
Member Since: February 11, 2006 Posts: 125 Comments: 6988
61. hurricanechaser
6:45 AM GMT on February 17, 2006
Hey everyone,

Has anyone seen the article from an Insurance website that I stumbled upon a short time ago, highlighting Max Mayfields comments regarding the upcoming 2006 hurricane season?

If not, I posted the article in its entirety on my latest blog for more convenience, and it is a very interesting read to say the least.

In it, he suggests 2006 could be more active than 2005.

I hope everyone has a goodnight and I will hopefully talk you all again soon.:)

Your friend,

60. arcturus
6:32 AM GMT on February 17, 2006
Nasa scientist says the ice caps melting much faster than models indicated they would.


59. CrazyC83
5:58 AM GMT on February 17, 2006
928 mb in an extratropical cyclone??? That's incredible! That is more typical of a hurricane with winds of around 150 mph (strong Category 4)...
Member Since: September 19, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 142
58. Inyo
5:24 AM GMT on February 17, 2006
there isn't much moisture in the storm now, lightning10, but it is passing over the ocean. Most of the precip will be showery and will come from instability, i think. The moisture may be pulled in but if it is, it will only be in the initial front and the post-frontal showers would still be really cold.

Average snow level is probably closer to 6000 feet than 7000 but it has been rising in the last few decades, if you ask any of the old timers. Not good for the ponderosas in the high country but they have much bigger problems to face due to fire suppression and bark beetles.

They said altadena right near where i live could get a dusting.. i am at about 900 feet so probably won't get any here. However, this weekend i will be in Mammoth. I already know there will be snow there.. but i am hoping there will be a dusting in the desert as i drive up the 14/395.
Member Since: September 3, 2002 Posts: 42 Comments: 932
57. EvilKarkyBR
3:49 AM GMT on February 17, 2006
My lovely old hometown of Grand Forks! I gotta say, I totally miss the winters there!
56. iyou
3:46 AM GMT on February 17, 2006
Great story Dr. Masters!! I was gripping my keyboard throughout the read!! I love the enthusiasm and passion of meteorologists and all weather folk everywhere!! Today in Toronto; snow, freezing rain, heavy rain with lightning/thunder - semi-skating rink conditions. 36F.
Member Since: July 25, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 5223
55. RL3AO
3:22 AM GMT on February 17, 2006
Grand Forks, ND tonight, -28F with wind chills -40F to -60F

Winters back in the midwest
54. lightning10
11:55 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Hi friends. I had an interesting thought. As you know there is a very cold system for western standerds coming in for the area all along the west coast. A cut off low bringing down some very cold air. Some computer modles are saying areas that rarely if ever get snow might get a light dusting to a few inches. There saying the snow level even in Southern California is going to be 3,500 foot. (its probaly on average around 7,000 feet)

However as the storm is moving down the coast it is drying out quickly.

There is some mositure to the south it might pick up. That will reinstate the moistre it has. If it doesnt then from what I understand we would get nothing more then a few dropes of sprinkels and a some light snow flurrys.

here is an immage of the ocean. You can see the low and the mosisture toward the south

My question would be if it did pick up that moisture from the south wouldnt the snow level rise very quickly? Mybe 5-6,000 feet like an average storm?
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 41 Comments: 630
53. ForecasterColby
11:04 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
I just had some of the scariest 20 minutes of my life. More details later.

Then a little later:

I had a supercell with a confirmed funnel cloud moving right at me at 65 MPH, right when my sister was on her way home from school, with tons of sirens going off, with my town specifically mentioned in the warning, and with a really nasty sky; and it turned east a skirted just south of me about 4-5 minutes before the tornadic part was scheduled to hit. It was scary. We still had the bad supercell core pass right over us.

Those were posted just a few minutes ago from TornadoTy, in Indiana.
52. ForecasterColby
10:52 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Yeah, wunderground is probably the best site for raw data, and one of the best weather communities, on the net.

By the way Dr. Masters, it's nice to see you directly adressing some of these questions.
51. snowboy
10:51 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Heads up folks, the current storm (over Michigan) has a wicked looking cold front stretching southward from Lake Michigan to Texas - looks like it will generate some severe weather...
Member Since: September 21, 2005 Posts: 10 Comments: 2606
50. DenverMark
10:43 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
I invested my $10 - one of the best values around anywhere!
Member Since: February 11, 2006 Posts: 125 Comments: 6988
49. Fshhead
8:41 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Has anyone seen anymore of the weatherball???????
I would really like to see that thing in detail!!!!
Member Since: November 19, 2005 Posts: 9 Comments: 9960
48. Fshhead
8:38 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Hmmmm like a visa commercial....

Price of joining wunderground $10
Info. gotten out of it Priceless!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Member Since: November 19, 2005 Posts: 9 Comments: 9960
47. Fshhead
8:35 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Yea, I gotta say I am addicted to this site........
Kept meaning to join for $10 but, kept forgetting. Well this article & the reminder of the Hugo story made me finally go do it!!!!!

BTW... thanx also to everyone who has ever read & posted in my global warming blog. I think we all see that this issue is almost as touchy as religion & politics (which got drawn into the debateLOL)
Everyone should really pay the $10 cause I think this site with all the hurricane focus is gonna be invaluable in the coming seasons ahead!!!
Member Since: November 19, 2005 Posts: 9 Comments: 9960
46. moocrew
8:14 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
i agree stormchaser its stuff like this that pretty much makes us all addicts of this place.....great story Dr. Masters. :)
8:10 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
We hit 20 - 25 mph downdrafts in Hurricane Hugo and dropped 700 feet, but that is not a realistic measure of what a downdraft will do to a P-3, since we had an engine on fire and the pilot had lost control of the aircraft.

Wow and I thought riding out Charley in the closet was a life altering experience. Thanks Dr. Masters for the great post. When you live somewhere like I do, Florida, we are obsessed with protecting our homes and getting ready for the hurricane. What an amazing job the hurricane hunters do. I will definitely be remembering this post when I read the hurricane watch and warnings this year.
43. oriondarkwood
6:34 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Dr. Masters,

OIC (ie Doppler radar, and by dropping probes on parchutes (dropsondes) ), but that does bring up a interesting question. In your expert opinion which nets better data Doppler radar and dropsondes or direct measurements.

Also do you think at some point in the future techonlogy will made the Hurricane Hunters obsolete, or do you think the inherent nature of weather will make it impossible to be reduced to a alogrithm?
Member Since: July 5, 2004 Posts: 51 Comments: 44
42. Dr. Jeff Masters , Director of Meteorology (Admin)
6:24 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
You can still get good data from an area you can't fly into by probing it with Doppler radar, and by dropping probes on parchutes (dropsondes) into the region of interest. We did both of those things on this flight.

Jeff Masters
41. Hawkeyewx
5:36 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
If this storm occurred today it would have more than a few people shouting, "Global warming!".
Member Since: July 5, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 1930
40. HurricaneMyles
3:09 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
I dont think he meant the best data possible for the storm, but the best data ever recorded. Even for not making it to the center, it was the best data ever recorded for these types of storms.
Member Since: January 12, 2006 Posts: 5 Comments: 827
39. oriondarkwood
2:30 PM GMT on February 16, 2006
Dr. Master,

First of all YOU DA MAN. Between this and and the Hugo flight proves that to be a Hurricane Hunter you got to have some serious stones.

But one part has me a bit miffed this quote:

"..The January 4, 1989 flight into the IOP 4 storm marked the only flight I'd ever been on where we performed a U-turn to escape severe turbulence. Despite not directly measuring the most interesting part of the storm, we were able to capture the best data set ever of an extratropical cyclone tapping the warm waters of the Gulf Stream to become a hybrid warm-core system..."

How where you able to get the best data if you turned away from the most interesting part of the storm aka the "triple point"?

Member Since: July 5, 2004 Posts: 51 Comments: 44
37. Inyo
7:53 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
wow, amazing story.

thanks for posting that.

winter looks like it is finally coming to southern California. I'll be driving into the cold, relatively dry low on Saturday through the desert and may see some relatively rare Mojave snow.
Member Since: September 3, 2002 Posts: 42 Comments: 932
36. ProgressivePulse
5:08 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
4 to 5 mph flow may be able to support Bermudia but I seriously doubt it would even touch the power needed to generate US Cities.
Member Since: August 19, 2005 Posts: 5 Comments: 6928
35. ProgressivePulse
5:05 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Michalp, the tunnels for weather modification are far far away. This article you speak about is mearly a horizontal turbine, working with the flow, similar to hydro-electric power. Simple concept here, as for trying to harvest this energy with water moving upwards, totally different animal.
Member Since: August 19, 2005 Posts: 5 Comments: 6928
34. CuriousCat
4:56 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
You rock, Dr. Masters. You know that your post is good when your fanboy bloggers are so in awe that they actually stay on topic! Nice reminder to all in the room that YOU'RE the scientist here.

Now let's get back to business before your street cred wears off with these guys... About that whole global warming thing...

33. phillyfan909
4:39 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Dr. Masters, I was thinking about your Hugo story while reading this, and hoping that it wouldn't turn into a repeat. I was getting a little uneasy reading about the pilot's enthusiasm about flying so low through all that turbulence. The u-turn sounded like a good idea!

Since that stormed 'bombed' so quickly and deeply, did a hurricane form inside it like it did with the Perfect Storm that was discussed yesterday?
32. atmosweather
4:29 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Which storm Colby?
Member Since: September 24, 2005 Posts: 33 Comments: 9265
31. ForecasterColby
4:21 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Cyclone, the only problem with the power generating portion of the tunnel idea is that the water would not go up. Make it level and you can generate power.
30. ForecasterColby
4:17 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
"Great, great post! You should write a novel about a storm like this. I would buy it!"

Actually, I was seriously considering writing a novel about a storm.
29. Merovingian
3:59 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Great, great post! You should write a novel about a storm like this. I would buy it!
28. LakeSuperior
3:55 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Dr. Masters.... ...a real science hero...

....some fifth grade student is going to
read some of Dr. Masters' weather adventures
and will want to become a meteorologist.
Member Since: January 16, 2002 Posts: 2 Comments: 11
27. DenverMark
2:59 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Hi,Oeneus - it's snowing pretty good here in Thornton now and starting to stick. The radar shows a decent band of snow setting up from Boulder right up toward Greeley. Maybe we can get 2-4" out of this anyway.
Member Since: February 11, 2006 Posts: 125 Comments: 6988
26. Oeneus
2:34 AM GMT on February 16, 2006

We are starting to get a little snow in Greeley now. Don't know that we will get much, but it is sticking at the moment. For everyone's info, Greeley was one of those areas on the drought map from the Feb 8 blog that was less than 5% of normal precipitation for Jan. Bring on more snow!

PS-Great story Dr. Masters. Keep 'em coming. Definatlty something we never see in CO!
Member Since: January 29, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 4
25. Accordionboy
2:20 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
cool cool michalp

Boy i wish the waters (only in winter) were warmer closer to the coast here so that storm COULD have it's real intensity AND hit us with 6" per hour all over the place!!
24. michalp
2:04 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
>> I am giving the tunnels a rest for awhile.
but but but, it's so close, well half way there anyway
23. globalize
1:50 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Roger your post at 12:40 GMT, Feb 16, '06.
Member Since: August 30, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 1150
22. DenverMark
1:15 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Correction - Dr.Masters, I look forward to your upcoming post Friday on global warming and hurricanes. I greatly respect your knowledge. What's important for everyone here is to respect each other even when we don't agree on how much global warming is natural vs. human caused, etc. And I've gotta quit speed reading!!
Member Since: February 11, 2006 Posts: 125 Comments: 6988
21. ForecasterColby
12:40 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
They flew a cat 5 at 500 feet?!
20. Dr. Jeff Masters , Director of Meteorology (Admin)
12:06 AM GMT on February 16, 2006
Trouper415 said:

"When you say you flying through turbulence, how far can the plane drop in these down drafts when you fly through them? "

We hit 20 - 25 mph downdrafts in Hurricane Hugo and dropped 700 feet, but that is not a realistic measure of what a downdraft will do to a P-3, since we had an engine on fire and the pilot had lost control of the aircraft.

Other than Hugo, the strongest downdrafts I remember hitting were in Hurricane Gilbert when it was a Cat 5 with 175 mph winds, where we saw downdrafts of about 7 m/s (16 mph). These were rather broad, and carried our plane downward about 400 feet (we were flying at 10,000 feet). We hit updrafts that were twice as strong, and carried us upwards about 900-1000 feet.

In the old days, before modern Inertial Navigation Equipment (INEs) were developed, the hurricane hunters flew beneath the clouds so they could navigate to the storm's center by watching the wind direction on the water below. This meant flying at altiudes of 500 feet or so, and it is not hard to imagine why the sole hurricane hunter plane lost in the Atlantic (Hurricane Janet in 1955) went down--Janet was a Category 5 hurricane, and probably had downdrafts of 10-20 mph. This would have been enough to push the old Super Constellation they flew into the water.

Jeff Masters

19. DenverMark
11:54 PM GMT on February 15, 2006
Dr.Masters - I really enjoyed your post. If one of these storms ever "bombed" that low close enough to the coast it would be an awesome blizzard! But the warmest waters are a little too far away. I'm all for giving both global warming and the tunnels a rest for a while - thanks, everyone! We're hoping for some snow here in Denver tonight, but don't know if we'll get very much. Looks better to the north of us.
Member Since: February 11, 2006 Posts: 125 Comments: 6988
17. Trouper415
10:29 PM GMT on February 15, 2006
Great post Dr Masters! This past summer comming back from the east coast, my plain experience some scary turbulence. Turned out we were flying over one of the most intense thunderstorms in the midwest that summer. Actually flying into these regularily would not be something I would really want to do, furthering my respect for someone like you who does it frequently. When you say you flying through turbulence, how far can the plain drop in these down drafts when you fly through them? Nice work.

Giants in 06.
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 5 Comments: 725
15. TampaSteve
9:50 PM GMT on February 15, 2006
Hey cyclonebuster...SEA TUNNELS OR SNOW SHOVELS, YOU PICK! ;-)
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 1 Comments: 97
14. FtWaltonBch2Tucson
9:47 PM GMT on February 15, 2006
Well, I'm off to Estrella War for the rest of the week. I'll have fun catching up, trust me... Let's hope that all those tents prove too tempting for fate to handle and we get a little rain out of this next system.
Member Since: January 9, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 21
13. ForecasterColby
9:38 PM GMT on February 15, 2006
Always interesting. By the way, if you enjoy Dr. Masters' stories, there's a link on the tropical page to a story of his flight into Hugo.

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