Hunting Hugo: The Hurricane Hunters' Wildest Ride

In September of 1989, a NOAA hurricane hunter airplane intercepted Hurricane Hugo as it approached the Caribbean islands, just before Hugo's destructive rampage through the Caribbean and South Carolina. The crew of the airplane were the first people to encounter the mighty hurricane--and very nearly became its first victims. The mission remains the most harrowing flight ever conducted by the NOAA hurricane hunters. I served as flight meteorologist on that flight, and feel fortunate indeed to be able to tell the story.

— Dr. Jeff Masters — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground

Part 1: Pre-flight

The hot tropical sun beats down on me as I cross the tarmac at Barbados's Grantly Adams field. I look to the northeast, scanning the sky for signs of Hurricane Hugo's outer cloud bands, but see only the puffy fair weather cumulus clouds typical of a tropical summer morning. I continue to the waiting aircraft. The flight engineers and maintenance crew are already hard at work, fueling the airplane and completing their pre-flight inspections. I climb the ladder and step into one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) P-3 Orion "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft--NOAA 42, affectionately called "The Princess", my partner in many memorable missions.

The interior of the aircraft buzzes with activity. Our electronic engineers stride about, powering up computers, checking scientific instruments, and tinkering with delicate circuit boards. Five scientists from NOAA's Hurricane Research Division huddle together, pointing at charts spread out over a table, and talk intently about today's mission--the Hurricane Energetics Experiment, designed to study the mechanisms responsible for hurricane intensification. I cut through the crowd and make my way to the flight director's station, located just behind the cockpit. Sitting down, I dig out the essential items for today's flight--aviation charts, flight plan, instrument calibration tables, today's passenger roster.

With practiced efficiency, I power on the computer monitors, radar displays, and scientific instrumentation located at my station, then sit down and query the on-board main computer about the status of each of the approximately 50 meteorological instruments we carry. My preliminary check shows everything working as expected, so I proceed with my next task--checking with each crew member to determine their state of readiness. I step into the cockpit and greet the cockpit crew.

Lowell Genzlinger is Aircraft Commander, a veteran of 249 hurricane eye penetrations. There is no better pilot in the business. My pre-flight tension wanes just a bit, seeing him in the cockpit, in charge. We work well together, having just completed a three month-long winter storm project in Maine.

Co-pilot is Gerry McKim, a relative newcomer to hurricane flying, but a Navy P-3 pilot for 20 years before coming to NOAA. This is his second year flying hurricanes. He is working towards becoming an aircraft commander, and will be the pilot during today' s eye penetrations.

Rounding out the flight crew is flight engineer Steve Wade, also in just his second year of hurricane flying. His job is to monitor engine performance, fuel consumption, and other critical aircraft functions.

The cockpit crew have no complications to report, so I proceed to the middle of the aircraft to confer with our electronic engineers. They have the demanding task of keeping the three radars, three computers, and over 50 scientific and navigation instruments running on an airplane pounded by the worst weather on the planet. They do a phenomenal job keeping the instruments and data collection hardware (which they custom designed themselves) running, and I never cease to be amazed at their ability to rapidly trouble-shoot and fix problems during missions.

Veterans Alan Goldstein and Terry Schricker hold down the fort today, along with newcomer Neal Rain. They are having some problems with the lower fuselage radar, but the rest of their systems are go. Terry thinks he can have things working well enough by take-off, so I promise to check back in a few minutes.

I continue my rounds, checking with navigator Sean White and radio operator Tom Nunn. They report no problems, so I head to the back of the aircraft where the five mission scientists work on last minute details of the flight plan.

The science team is a veritable "Who's Who" in the science of hurricane research. The director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division (and future head of the National Hurricane Center), Bob Burpee, leads the science team. The rest of the team consists of Frank Marks, Jr., Hugh Willoughby, Pete Black, and Peter Dodge. Frank is lead mission scientist today. We converse briefly about today's mission, a two-aircraft research mission into newly-formed Hurricane Hugo. The high altitude aircraft, NOAA 43, will fly at 20,000 feet and circle the periphery of the storm, and will study the hurricane's large scale environment. Our aircraft, NOAA 42, will repeatedly penetrate the eye at the lowest safe altitude, and gather detailed information on the low-level storm environment and air-sea interaction. No hurricane hunter aircraft have penetrated the storm  yet--we will be the first humans to see Hurricane Hugo! I feel excited and nervous about our upcoming flight--the view inside the eye of a mature hurricane's eye at low altitude is an incredibly spectacular sight. The only catch is that in order to get there, we must fly directly through the hurricane's strongest winds and most violent turbulence--the dangerous eyewall. Today, we are pushing the limits of safe hurricane flying by going into the eyewall at 1,500 feet, the altitude where the hurricane's winds and turbulence are at their worst. It is my prime job as flight director to ensure the safety of the mission from a meteorological perspective, and call for a climb to a higher, safer altitude if I judge that the storm is too dangerous. Frank and I agree to determine what altitude we will penetrate the storm at once we get airborne and get a good look at Hugo with our weather radars.

The ground crew is not quite done fueling the airplane, so I take the time to talk to our guest from Barbados. Today's victim is Janice Griffith, a reporter with the Barbados Sun newspaper. My boss, Jim McFadden, along for the ride today as an observer, walks over to join in the conversation. Janice has just received her pre-flight safety briefing from Lowell, the Aircraft Commander. The briefing covered important items like how to use the life preservers and life rafts, how to fasten the heavy duty lap and shoulder belts needed during turbulent flight, and where the barf bags are located.

She looks wide-eyed and excited. No doubt, though, she is wondering about the wisdom of hopping a ride with a band of nuts that would deliberately fly into nature's most ferocious storms.

"Where are the parachutes?" she asks, when Lowell finishes the briefing and asks her if she has any questions.

Lowell and Jim and I look at each other, and smile. Same old question.

"We don't carry parachutes," Lowell answers. "Where we're going, a parachute won't do you any good."

Jim cheers her up by saying, "Hey, it can be dangerous, but we haven't lost an airplane yet, in over 30 years of flying."

While we talk, ground crew chief Burt Kinney appears beside me and interrupts.

"Hey, we're all fueled up and ready to go down there. You got the pink sheet?"

"Right here!" I reply, holding out my clipboard with the pink roster sheet attached to it. "Hang on, let me do a final body count, and check with Alan and Terry one more time."

I trot over to the radar station and check with Terry and Alan.

"You guys ready?" I ask.

"Let's go!" replies Terry. "We've got the radar working."

"Excellent!" I reply. Quickly, I stride to the front of the aircraft, then to the back, counting each person as I go, making sure 16 people are on board. When I reach the sixteenth person (myself!), I head over to the door where Burt awaits.

"Sixteen souls, and no stragglers," I say, handing the pink roster sheet to him. Should we not return, the pink sheet will be used to notify our next of kin. I feel a queasy sense of anxiety, as I always do, when I see Burt disappear down the ladder with the pink sheet clutched in his hand.

Terry hauls up the ladder, shuts the door, locks it down, and gives me a thumbs up. Time to go. The first people to see Hurricane Hugo, and at low altitude! Excitement, tempered by an undercurrent of anxiety, energizes me as I stride up to the cockpit. I step in, hold up a thumb to Lowell, Gerry, and Steve.

"OK, the door is shut and the crew is ready to go!" I yell.

"Roger! Prepare to start engines!" replies Lowell.

I take my seat, fasten my seat belt, don my headset, and prepare for take off.

Part 2 »