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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555. Bonedog
2:35 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Oh yea the lovely plow driver.

Found a great solution to him... bottle of Johny at the first storm. After that its my neighbors problem :) *evil grin*
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554. flaboyinga
2:32 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Hey Bone, I got sent from a town 100 mi S of Tampa to Great Lakes, Illinois for boot camp. Talk about snow. We had every type of shovel on the base in use plus metal dustpans with broom handles stuck in them going 24/7. And the wind off of the Great Lakes. Thought I was gonna die! But I didn't.
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553. Bonedog
2:34 PM EST on November 26, 2007
LOL Lake I get ya.
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552. LakeShadow
7:33 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
If my driveway were any bigger..I would get a snowblower. its only 25ft... really not much to shovel at all. Its when the plow goes by and damms up the end of your I hate that!
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551. LakeShadow
7:28 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
See, the point of exercise is to condition the heart so it wont attack you when you have to shovel. Thus shoveling snow (rather that food into my mouth) is actually preventing me from having a heart attack.
*knocks on wood*
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550. Bonedog
2:31 PM EST on November 26, 2007
dont get me wrong anything under 6 inches and I use the shovel but for the big snowfalls the snowblower gets fired up
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549. flaboyinga
2:21 PM EST on November 26, 2007
539. LakeShadow 2:21 PM EST on November 26, 2007
536. Bonedog 7:19 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
LOL Lake if you dont own one up there cookoo

I keep breaking it!

May I suggest getting another operator for the new shovel. It sounds like you are too enthusiastic. Hmmmm
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548. Weather456
3:27 PM AST on November 26, 2007
good afternoon 2 all
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547. NEwxguy
7:24 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Use to shovel,but it got too much for me,and now I can help my elderly neighbor without dropping from a heart attack,but you are right about good excercise.
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546. Bonedog
2:24 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Its either a snowblower for me or a heart attack LOL I choose my nice big snow blower
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545. Bonedog
2:23 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Lake you are correct about the pattern. Siberian Express looks to be pulling out of the station in December.
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544. NEwxguy
7:22 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Lake,sounds good,but the problem is finding a helper
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543. LakeShadow
7:22 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
snowblowers consume energy thats wasteful and I could use the exercise and fresh air. I'll shovel 7 feet...Its the best workout all winter!
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542. Bonedog
2:22 PM EST on November 26, 2007
I keep breaking it!

Time to buy a snow blower then LOL
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541. LakeShadow
7:21 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
NEwxguy, one for me and another for a helper!
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540. NEwxguy
7:21 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
539. LakeShadow 7:21 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
536. Bonedog 7:19 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
LOL Lake if you dont own one up there cookoo

I keep breaking it!

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539. LakeShadow
7:20 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
536. Bonedog 7:19 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
LOL Lake if you dont own one up there cookoo

I keep breaking it!
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538. NEwxguy
7:19 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
534. LakeShadow 7:14 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
wow, bone... I better get another shovel...

How many do you need?
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537. LakeShadow
7:16 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
The scenerio is that two seperate ridges are developing, one in N.Siberia and another over the Yukon. These will serve to filter cold air form the arctic circle into the central regions of US and Canada, which will in turn set up a trof above the Great Lakes...all summing up to lots of cold air throughout the nation and plenty of lake effect opportunities around the unfrozen lakes...
Am I following this right?
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536. Bonedog
2:18 PM EST on November 26, 2007
LOL Lake if you dont own one up there cookoo
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535. Bonedog
2:12 PM EST on November 26, 2007
havent found an7ything about 1965 guess it was comprable to 95 *shrugs*
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534. LakeShadow
7:13 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
wow, bone... I better get another shovel...
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533. eaglesrock
2:12 PM EST on November 26, 2007
The CMC develops a 1004 mb low in the central Atlantic about 5 days out.
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532. Bonedog
2:10 PM EST on November 26, 2007
yup that was for the winter of 1995 looking up 65 now
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531. 882MB
7:10 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
What is the cmc developing eaglesrock?
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530. NEwxguy
7:07 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
interesting statistics
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529. eaglesrock
2:06 PM EST on November 26, 2007
12z CMC continues tropical/subtropical development.
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528. Bonedog
2:05 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Early Season Snow
Cold air pouring eastward over Lake Ontario on the 7th produced very heavy snow bands with rates of up to 4 inches per hour. Snowfall totals include over 24 inches in parts of Lewis County; 20 inches in Highmarket; 36 inches in Redfield (Oswego County); over 12 inches south of Watertown and at the Stillwater Reservoir; and about 6 inches in the northern and western Adirondacks
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527. Bonedog
2:04 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Snowfall across the Northeast states ranged from near to well above normal during December. Monthly snowfall totals in the Baltimore-Washington area totalled between 2 and 3 inches, while Buffalo, NY was buried by 61.2 inches. This snowfall total for Buffalo was 37.4 inches greater than their long-term normal. Burlington, VT measured 44 inches of snow during December, which was nearly two feet (22.7 inches) more than they expect to receive during December. Syracuse, NY, however, leads the pack of major Northeast cities with a seasonal accumulation through the end of December of 79.3 inches (41.6 inches above normal for this point in the season). Some locations, such as Ithaca, NY, have already exceeded the total snowfall for the entire winter of 1994-95. You can view an enhanced table of monthly and seasonal snowfall totals for many location in the Northeast.

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526. Bonedog
1:59 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Temperatures during December were rarely extremely cold (only a couple daily records were broken), but were consistently colder than normal throughout the month. In Wilkes-Barre, PA, for instance, there were only six days during the month that averaged warmer than normal and only one day that was more than 5 degrees warmer than normal. The average temperature across the twelve states which comprise the Northeast averaged 3.6 degrees colder than the monthly normal. The smallest departures (less than 3 degrees) were noted in New England, with the state of Massachusetts reporting a monthly temperature departure of -2.4 degrees. The largest departures were recorded in the southern portion of the region, including a departure of -4.6 degrees for Delaware. Overall, it was the Northeast's 20th coldest December in the last 101 years.
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525. Bonedog
1:57 PM EST on November 26, 2007
yup eventually fla
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524. LakeShadow
6:53 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
There was a mention of 1965 and 1995 as being the only other 2 years in the NWS statement, concerning the airmass that is predicted to engulf the Great Lakes region, Does anyone know of any storms on record from those years (in the month of December) that would be a possible model for this year?
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523. flaboyinga
1:52 PM EST on November 26, 2007
hey Bone, I guess that being in the east, we're gonna have whatever is to the west of us in the near future, as far as weather is concerned.
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522. NEwxguy
6:54 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Looks like December is going to be a rollercoaster ride.
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521. Bonedog
1:49 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Hey Lake.

I got your mail. Kinda crazy here at work right now so I havent really looked at the long range forcasts or models. Yesterday I peeked at them and it looks like very cold air will be around the first week of december then moderate a little around 8-10th then another blast. That was from yesterdays models so i dont know if it has changed.

Should be a ride for all of us though. Might be a potential system in the same time frame that could make it a little slippery in the NE
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520. NEwxguy
6:52 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Yeh,bone,going to be crazy temps tonight.
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519. NEwxguy
6:51 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Hey,Lake,Thanks flaboy
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518. Bonedog
1:46 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Hey Guys. Thanksgiving was good for the family and I.

Weather is rainy here. Temps are on the rise though and LOL our high temps will be around midnight LOL go figure.

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517. LakeShadow
6:48 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
hey bone, NEwxguy...
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516. flaboyinga
1:43 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Hey NewX, that's a cool avatar picture.
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515. NEwxguy
6:39 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
hey,Bone,how was your Thanksgiving?

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514. flaboyinga
1:32 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Hey Bonedog, how are things in Jersey?
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513. presslord
1:31 PM EST on November 26, 2007
here's an interesting article on seasonal hurrican predictions...
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512. flaboyinga
1:04 PM EST on November 26, 2007
510. HopquickSteve 12:57 PM EST on November 26, 2007
On CSpan 2 there are people "testifying" about GW and the cryosphere. :)

I'll bet they don't go anywhere without a load of plastic bottles of spring water, which have triggered an environmental alert (the bottles) as one of the most serious global pollution problems in terms of disposal, energy consumption to produce, heat release during the manufacturing process, chemical poisoning of fish, sea life, and wildlife, and a few other environmental problems, including breaking down before use and chemically contaminating the contents of the container. (it's mostly about whose ox is getting Gored at the moment.)IMHO
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511. Bonedog
1:14 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Hey Folks. Hows things been
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510. HopquickSteve
5:43 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
On CSpan 2 there are people "testifying" about GW and the cryosphere. :)
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509. flaboyinga
12:46 PM EST on November 26, 2007
HQSteve. I made a comment last night about the far east looking like every surface low seems to make at least a tropical storm and make landfall. And every storm over there seems to have at least one right behind it. It kinda' looks like the inbound flights into a busy airport like Atlanta.
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508. flaboyinga
12:41 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Atlanta is the place that really needs rain. I don't know if they need all that lightning very much tho. We just went thru a bunch of skeeters that were fightin' the buzzards for the road kill, and there's still some water in the ditches. So, I'd be glad to let Atlanta, etc have this
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507. HopquickSteve
5:43 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
The West Pacific is still crazy active. Just because we had a dull year doesn't mean mama earth is napping. ;)
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506. BajaALemt
11:41 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Y'all take care...I'm out
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505. BajaALemt
11:37 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Chow, NE...take care
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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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