Giving thanks to the Hurricane Hunters and QuikSCAT scientists

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

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

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

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755. Levi32
6:52 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
NEW BLOG UP..finally lol.
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754. ShenValleyFlyFish
10:41 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Hey guys: Whats going on? Been away for a bit? Have you sprung Dr M yet?
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753. Bonedog
10:43 AM EST on November 27, 2007
ah new page LOL no stretch marks now LOL
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752. Levi32
6:40 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
Hey Adrian!! Nice to see you :)

Yeah it's highly unlikely anything will form. I never say never though, because in the weather there's never an exact 0% chance of anything happening or not happening. It's always 0.00000001% or greater lol.
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751. Bonedog
10:41 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Bye Lake
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750. LakeShadow
3:37 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
gotta go, catch y'all later.
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749. HurricaneGeek
10:39 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Just my thought, but I think Hurricane Season is shut off until 2008. If am wrong, wouldn't be the first time ;) I f I am right, it would :) lol.
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748. hurricane23
3:36 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Hey SJ and Levi!

For those wondering theres very little chance of anything popping across the atlantic as fast upper level winds are in control across most if not all of the entire basin. Adrian
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747. Bonedog
10:37 AM EST on November 27, 2007
showing on my screen as 1024 x 819 LOL

guess my comp is acting up again
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746. HurricaneGeek
10:37 AM EST on November 27, 2007

Shear is decreasing in that area, however, it is still high.
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745. LakeShadow
3:34 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
I'm just learning on every front. They say it keeps the mind young.
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744. StormJunkie
3:34 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
You too Levi!

Don't get me wrong, I love winter weather, just don't see enough of it down here! Hope to make another trip to the NC mountains with a storm approaching. Going to have to see when they start getting some real snow though.
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743. Levi32
6:35 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
740. Bonedog 6:35 AM AKST on November 27, 2007 Hide this comment.
Levi can you shrink your image please? Try keeping the width to no more then 720.


It's already automatically at 640 width bone...I don't know what you're seeing, but for me my images are automatically re-sized and the admin put that feature in. I just tried changing it manually and it's still the same size to me.
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742. HurricaneGeek
10:33 AM EST on November 27, 2007
You know, weather knows no boundries. While it is doubtful that anything that does form in December will be strong, if anything forms at all, it is possible.
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741. Levi32
6:33 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
This image is self-explanatory....there isn't but a couple dots on the map with wind shear below 20 knots.

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740. Bonedog
10:34 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Levi can you shrink your image in post 725 please? Try keeping the width to no more then 720.

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739. StormJunkie
3:34 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Took a trip up to the NC mountains a couple of weeks ago, there was still a little color left. Finally got around to uploading some photos yesterday if anyone is interested...

More Photos...
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738. Bonedog
10:32 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Glad to help Storm.

Winter Wx is my forte. The way you all teach me during hurricane season I get to give back in the winter and teach others.
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737. hurricane23
3:32 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Morning again to all hope everyone had a great thanksgiving.
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736. cchsweatherman
3:26 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Good morning all. Very sad day here in South Florida with the death of 24 year-old former Hurricane Sean Taylor. I feel terrible for the family, especially his 18-month old daughter who saw her dad get shot now without a father. God bless them.

On another note, I do not remember who recalled this from a previous blog from Dr. Masters, but it looks like he may be correct. All the forecast models show conditions becoming much more favorable in the Atlantic in early December, so I would not immediately discount the CMC model, but I do doubt the intensity of the system it forecasts. Taking a look at the other forecast models, they do show a tropical entity this weekend, so we may not yet be done with hurricane season just yet. Important to note is the fact that anything that would form this time of year would not be strong. Comments?
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735. Levi32
6:31 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
Lol used to the tropics eh SJ? :) Great to see ya!
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734. StormJunkie
3:30 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Good to see you LS :~) You too Bone

All this winter/global weather talk is way out of my league, but makes for interesting reading and learning. Thanks y'all!
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733. Bonedog
10:29 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Morning Storm

Morning 23
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732. LakeShadow
3:26 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Morning Storm and Adrian!
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731. LakeShadow
3:25 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Please shrink giant posts. Hard to read.
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730. hurricane23
3:23 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Morning to everyone!

Just some thought to grays december forcast approaching in a few weeks.This december forcast in my personal opinion is pretty much useless as its impossible to know what atmospheric conditions will be in place 6 months from now.For all we know there is a chance that a significant nino will come about late in 2008 similar to the 92 or 93 season.Overall its pretty much entertainment for me but will read as iam been following them for years.

NOAA to me did a great job with there forcast as they predicted 13-17 named tropical cyclones and we ended up with 6 hurricanes as karen was upgraded via the ATCF file.They also called for 3-5 majors and we ended up with 2 in 07.

We'll see what happens! Adrian
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729. StormJunkie
3:17 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Morning all :~)

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving weekend!
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728. Levi32
6:21 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
Stage 3 (El-Nino like) – the global relative AAM anomaly is positive. Westerly wind anomalies move into the Eastern Hemisphere, broaden in latitudinal extent and link up with deep westerly flow anomalies over the mid-latitude Western Hemisphere. An extended Pacific Ocean jet stream and southward shifted storm track is observed favoring high impact weather events along the USA west coast.

Doesn't favor a ridge over Alaska, although that surprises me. During El Nino the Aleutian Low is very strong and provides constant southerly winds aloft into Alaska during the winter.
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726. LakeShadow
3:17 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Ha, ha, Shen!
Trolls, we demand you release Dr. M!!!

Hey I found a weather blog on our local news sight... It will be interesting to get the locals' perspectives of all this...

eventually I will lure them all to the wunderground!
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725. Levi32
6:16 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
Look at this.

I mean that's so bizarre to have all the above normal heights centered on the pole and everywhere else it's below normal. It's the complete reverse of what weather is lol.
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724. Bonedog
10:13 AM EST on November 27, 2007
yea Levi noticed that also. At the end of the model run it breaks the ridge down and has a polar low over Alaska in the 945 to 965mb range.

Going to be a flip flop pattern in the coming weeks. I am seeing a pattern shift and placement of winters past. The cold snowy ones that folks want to end quickly. Dont get me wrong there will be recpits from the cold but they will be short lived. Again this is model forcasts so we have to see if it does happen but looking back 3 or 4 weeks it does appear climotologically speaking we are in for a bad winter
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723. ShenValleyFlyFish
10:10 AM EST on November 27, 2007
I know where Dr M is. The TROLLS have captured him and are holding him hostage till we take down our ignore lists. They just can't figure out why no one's responding to their demands.
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722. Levi32
6:08 AM AKST on November 27, 2007
5) Very Strong Ridge over Alaska (some models calling for 1032-1040mb

That ridge will be the strongest of the winter, bringing 500mb heights of 5640m+ into our area, and temps 20 degrees above normal. It's also the sign of a pattern change developing over the northern hemisphere, because during La Nina Alaska never gets big ridges like that. Sure enough the GFS has a rapid turn-around and moves your cold air ball over the Hudson Bay west and into Alaska pushing the ridge out. Very interesting month of December ahead.
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721. Bonedog
9:59 AM EST on November 27, 2007
I think he will Lake. During the "off season" Doc sometimes will leave posts up for a week before updating.

Yea I looked at the latest charts and am seeing some very anomolous events taking shape.

1) AO forcasted to drop to -4 or lower which would be a first since record keeping began

2) NAO going +2 then almost the next day droping to -.5

3) PNA fluctuating between positive, neutral, negative then jumping +2 rapidly.

4) Continued moderate La Nina

5) Very Strong Ridge over Alaska (some models calling for 1032-1040mb

6) Moderatley Strong Low over Hudson Bay (996mb)

could be the setup for a major lake effect breakout within the larger problem of very much below normal temperatures for much of the Eastern US.
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720. Patrap
9:03 AM CST on November 27, 2007
Expect a new Entry shortly.
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719. LakeShadow
2:50 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
So what has become of the good Dr. Masters? Maybe he's just really thankful for the Hurricane hunters...wants to let the post linger on for a while.
I would expect some kind of insight on this polar vortex dropping south of the hudson bay event from him. its an anomoly to speak of, even if its not tropical...
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718. Bonedog
9:48 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Morning Lake.

Looks like alot of us will be in afor a bumpy December
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717. LakeShadow
2:44 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Happy Tuesday. There is lots of weather out there. And its all heading my way. We're in for a bumpy December. NWS has me scared!
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716. MisterPerfect
2:42 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
Posted by: JeffMasters, 2:40 PM EST on November 21, 2007

Almost a week and only 700 posts? Come on Jeff...crank us out some weather...its there somewhere!!!
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715. Bonedog
9:40 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Michael at least we can all agree on the concisancy of the CMC to give us good laughs year round :o)

new definition:

CMC: Can Make Comedy
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714. overwash12
2:25 PM GMT on November 27, 2007
hey everybody, I havent posted in awhile, go figure not much happening. I live on the north east coast of N.C. It seems like hurricane season is over, just then mother nature throws a suprise on you! I'm looking for some type of hybrid system to get going once we get the jetstream and an intense low off the southeast to hookup.
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712. Bonedog
9:23 AM EST on November 27, 2007
morning flood
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711. ShenValleyFlyFish
9:13 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Good morning Flood Did you come in late for work or did you actually have something to do this morning?
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710. ShenValleyFlyFish
9:00 AM EST on November 27, 2007
Hey. How come the blog's eating my posts? Hope it didn't eat any of JFV's. Wish I could get an energy/enthusiasm transfusion from that young man, think I might be able to put it to good use.

Ach, vell. As my great grandparents would have said: "Ve are too soon oldt and to late schmardt."
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709. Floodman
8:12 AM CST on November 27, 2007
Good morning, folks
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708. Beachfoxx
7:57 AM CST on November 27, 2007
Hi all,

Noticed the comments about Red Tide. Its bad here on Choctawhatchee Bay... we have hundreds of dead fish on the beach behind the house & floating in the bay. The smell is horrible, I think its the worst I have ever seen. Everyone is walking around sneezing, watery eyes, sore throat all Red Tide related.
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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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