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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55. extreme236
2:12 AM GMT on November 22, 2007
Well it appears that the hurricane season is likely over. As Dr. M said before, maybe a storm in the mid-atlantic is possible but that chance isnt terribly high. This hurricane season has been one full of surprises and several interesting moments. It has had a few record breaking storms, and unfortunatly a deadly one for Central America, Mexico, and Hispanola. The US got lucky this year with the exception of Humberto (According from the TC report going from depression to 90mph cat 1 in 19 hours from its formation at 0900UTC to landfall at 0400UTC). It will definatly be interesting to see what next year brings. Unfortunatly I find it unlikely that the US will be as fortunate next year. Also hopefully Mexico and Central America will get a better year.

My forecast months ago was 14-16 Named Storms

Total cyclones: 16
Named Storms: 14
Hurricanes: 5 (Perhaps 6 with Karen)
Strongest Storm: Hurricane Dean (165 mph/906 pressure)

I will be soon updating my blog with info on each system this year. If any new cyclones were to form, I will then update that as well.
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54. BtnTx
8:16 PM CST on November 21, 2007
Looks like southern Louisianna will get a lot more storms than we did here...
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53. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
2:05 AM GMT on November 22, 2007
Mītoku and Hagibisu sure are intensifying quickly.

nearly 24 hours ago both systems were mere tropical storms.

Cyclone Bongwe has re-intensified into a severe tropical storm.

Lee-Ariel is back in the TWCW Perth area of responsibility according to satellite imageries location. It is still 25 knots 1 minute sustained winds. Perth doesn't seem interested in the system at the moment.

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52. BtnTx
8:04 PM CST on November 21, 2007
Heavy rain should end here soon as front passes through. Cold weather (to me) for the next few days here! Highs only to be in upper 40's to low 50's is cold for us living here!
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51. BtnTx
7:56 PM CST on November 21, 2007
It is storm city here right now in Baytown-East Houston area!
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50. Hurricaneblast
1:40 AM GMT on November 22, 2007
SMISS rainfall rate image clearly shows where the developing eye of Typhoon Hagibis (Lando) is
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49. Weather456
9:27 PM AST on November 21, 2007
La Niña Persists
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48. Weather456
9:26 PM AST on November 21, 2007
same to you kman
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47. kmanislander
1:09 AM GMT on November 22, 2007
To all the wonderful bloggers I have met here and who contributed to the numerous spirited discussions since June 1st. HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO YOU !!

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46. surfmom
12:46 AM GMT on November 22, 2007
wishing everyone a good & happy thanksgiving. Looks like I'll get waves tomorrow, puny but waves none the less. Hope that cold front pushes through tonight! Wetsuit & board ready Turkey later
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45. Weather456
8:25 PM AST on November 21, 2007

The weather across the Western Caribbean remains quiet and mostly dry thanks to ridging to our north. The exception is over the Southwest Caribbean were a tropical wave continues to interact with the ITCZ to produce scattered showers and isolated thunderstorms over Lower Central America and the Caribbean Sea west of 75W south of 13N.

Despite the passage of a cold front over the extreme Northeast Caribbean, confluent flow aloft continues to keep precipitation and cloud cover to a minimum. Light to moderate widely scattered showers are possible anywhere from east of 70W and north of 16N.

High pressure to the north of the region has increase the easterly flow through the Caribbean. 15-20 knot winds are everywhere. Seas remain 3-5 ft east of 70W, increasing to 10 ft west of 70W especially along the Colombian Coast.

by W456
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44. Weather456
7:54 PM AST on November 21, 2007


A 1023 mb high over the Southwest Atlantic continues to produce fair weather and 5-10 knot return flow over the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida to Mainland Mexico. A cold front has enter the region and perhaps has set the stage for a developing storm that is being forecasted by the NAM and GFS computer models. In the meantime, pronounce return ashore flow is helping enhance cloudiness and showers along the font over the Southern Mississippi Valley.

Out over the Southwest Atlantic, a broad surface anticyclone dominates the area west of 60W and thus fair weather exist. Meanwhile, a 992 millibar low pressure area is located near 35N/63W. The pressure gradient between the two features is resulting in near gale force winds and seas. QuikSCAT and ship reports reveal northeast winds of 35 to 45 knots north of 25N between 40W and 75W. Model data suggest 25-30 ft seas in northerly swells north of 30N and 7-15 ft in north-northeast swells south of 30N.

by W456
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43. hurricane23
19:03 EST le 21 novembre 2007

The U.S. did once again get lucky landfall wise this hurricane season but youre right on the money this season did set records with Humberto's rapid intensification becoming the fastest developing storm on record to be so close to land. It strengthened from a 35 mph tropical depression to a 90 mph hurricane in 14 hours to 2 very impressive cat 5's rolling through the caribbean this year.Another one you could add to that rapid intensification close to land is lorenzo making landfall in about the same location that Hurricane Dean struck a month earlier.Overall it was an interesting season for me but again goes to show that pre-season forcast need to be taken with great caution and no one can tell you what given area will be hit in any given year.Only mother nature knows what actually is going take shape.The best you can do is have that hurricane plan in place come june 1 if you live in a hurricane prone area.

I do have some questions that i will ask beven in december and also look forward to seeing stacy stewart come back next year as i missed his great discussions during the season. Adrian
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42. Weather456
7:34 PM AST on November 21, 2007
What I've learned this hurricane season:

1. Never, and I mean never underestimate developing tropical cyclones.

2. Category 5 hurricanes are becoming a norm and requirement for a normal season...IMO

3. What causes diurnal max and diurnal min over the ocean...Thanks to MSTL

4. Cyclolysis of tropical cyclones...thanks to Karen

5. The complete transition of a tropical cyclone to extra tropical to cold core low...Noel.

6. You don't need a storm to it the US to consider the season deadly and above average. No US major landfalls but the season is one of the deadliest season setting several records.

7. This blog will shut down November

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41. hurricane23
18:44 EST le 21 novembre 2007
Very impressive outflow with this system and looks on its way on reaching major hurricane status.

MITAG on rainbow imagery...

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40. hurricane23
18:40 EST le 21 novembre 2007
Here's another close-up view of HAGIBIS...

Deep convection going...Loop Here

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37. wxhatt
11:05 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Thanks CycloneQld, same to you!

Looks intimidating over there in west pac.
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36. CycloneQld
10:59 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Happy Thanksgiving wishes to the folks in America - take care and enjoy the holiday

Much activity continuing in the W Pacific:

Look at the amazing amount of convection from 23W Hagibis as it approaches Indochina, flood warnings should be posted for those living there.

Typhoon warning also in effect for 24W Mitag as it nears closer to Luzon and Manila.

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35. wxhatt
11:01 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
hey, what do you know I guess it just goes straight to the portrait on reload with no wait on another approval. Wahooo!

Hey Guys, I am working on a rather big project for the Weather Underground. I don't want to say quite yet, so I don't spoil it prior to completion. I'm sure all will enjoy it...

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34. Weather456
6:57 PM AST on November 21, 2007
25. JFV 6:38 PM AST on November 21, 2007,

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33. wxhatt
10:54 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
That's ok JFV, I understand. I have just looked and looked for an easy way to add the already approved pic in my album to no avail.

I will just add it from scratch. go figure...

Thanks for the reply, and have a great Thanksgiving! :)
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31. wxhatt
10:43 PM GMT on November 21, 2007

can you tell me how i can use an already approved photo in my album, for my portrait?

Thank You
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30. wxhatt
10:41 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Hi BahaHurican,

can you tell me how i can use an already approved photo in my album, for my portrait?

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27. BahaHurican
5:37 PM EST on November 21, 2007
Evening everybody,

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American friends (and anybody else who celebrates Harvest this late . . . LOL). Hope u guys enjoy the day off tomorrow.

ON a weather note, anybody know what is causing the cloud buildup in the SW Caribbean? I haven't had time to do more than take a peek at the satellite maps.
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24. wxhatt
10:37 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
I want to make a photo which has already been approved for my portrait. How can I do that?
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23. sporteguy03
10:28 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
I give thanks to Dr.Masters blogs everyday!
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22. wxhatt
10:28 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Happy Thanksgiving All!
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21. Weather456
5:42 PM AST on November 21, 2007
I dont have one but I would like to say:

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20. Floodman
3:26 PM CST on November 21, 2007
Thanks, Dr M, and a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
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19. seflagamma
4:31 PM EST on November 21, 2007
Hi everyone,

I know I am being "off topic" and if admin wants to ban me from this blog that's Ok.. not here much except during 'cane season.

Just wanted to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!!!!]

Rylee and her Preschool friends at their Thanksgiving Program. We had Turkeys, Indians, and Pilgrams putting on a program for the parents and grandparents outside in the SE Florida Thanksgiving Sun.

May you and yours have a Blessed and Beautiful Thanksgiving Day.

Gamma and family

(Rylee is my grand daughter)
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18. sporteguy03
9:29 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Weather 456,
Thank you for the weather picture updates, do you have a picture of a Turkey shaped cloud for Thanksgiving?
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17. sporteguy03
9:22 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Thank you Dr.Masters for the dangerous and thrilling blog update and a reminder that the hurricane season is still here. Enjoy the snow tomorrow up in Ann Arbor should be a great game at Ford's Field in the temperature controlled environment:)
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16. Weather456
5:22 PM AST on November 21, 2007
Two tropical cyclones

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15. Weather456
5:17 PM AST on November 21, 2007
Cloud Streets over the NW ATL


This was pointed out by Bonedog earlier

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14. Weather456
5:17 PM AST on November 21, 2007
This is the total opposite. Brisk winds being funneled through the valley of the Tehautepec Peninsula caused upwelling of cold water over the Gulf of Tehuantepec. This was discuss a few weeks ago on this blog.

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13. NEwxguy
8:43 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
...A Tornado Warning remains in effect until 245 PM CST for east
central Oregon County...

At 222 PM CST...National Weather Service Doppler radar continued to
indicate a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado 6 miles
east of Couch...or 14 miles east of Thayer...moving east at 20 mph.
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12. NEwxguy
8:38 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
I often wondered what they did off season,as always learn something new/
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11. Fshhead
8:36 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone & a BIG THANX to the Hurricane Hunters & especially Randy for providing that AWESOME flight into Felix video!!!!!!
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9. Spetrm
3:35 PM EST on November 21, 2007
Detailed and riviting story doc, I enjoyed it. Makes me wish sometimes that I went in to the airforce reserves instead of the navy. LOL
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7. NEwxguy
8:37 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
thanks Doc,have a happy thanksgiving
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5. KRL
8:30 PM GMT on November 21, 2007
Happy Thankgiving Dr. Masters and thanks for all the forecasts this season.

Hurricane Hunters Felix Video
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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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