Hunting Hugo: Approach

The big plane noses down into its descent. My stomach flutters from the brief sensation of weightlessness--and the knowledge that we are now only a few minutes away from our rendezvous with the eye of Hurricane Hugo, at 1,500 feet!

  • Narrow feeder bands of cumulus clouds spiral into the storm
  • We fly under the high cirrus outflow clouds surrounding the hurricane
  • The cumulus clouds thicken as we approach the first spiral band
  • Cumulonimbus clouds from the first spiral band darken the sky
  • Winds of 80 mph turn the sea surface white inside the spiral band

I look out my window, and watch the ocean grow closer. Powerful wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph drive crescent-shaped white-capped waves over the ocean surface. A thin haze of high cirrus clouds dims the sun; the water sparkles a dull blue color. We cross over several hurricane feeder bands--tall heaps of piled cumulus clouds arranged in picturesque lines that spiral into the eyewall. Ahead, the first major spiral band--an ominous dark mass of forbidding cumulonimbus clouds--blocks our path.

"OK, leveling out at 1,500 feet," calls out Lowell. "How does this track look?"

I study the radar display and wind readings for a moment and respond, "Let's hold this track through this spiral band, and see what things look like when we pop out on the other side."

"OK, sounds good," he replies. "We're getting pretty close now, time to button things up."

"SET CONDITION ONE!" Lowell's voice crackles 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 stashes away flight bags, clip boards, and other loose items that could turn into dangerous missiles in severe turbulence. I buckle my heavy-duty seat belt, but don't bother with the shoulder harness. The turbulence in a spiral band is never too bad. I give a thumbs up to navigator Sean White across the aisle from me.

Twilight falls. Thick grey clouds engulf us. The winds jump to 85 mph. Minor turbulent wind gusts bounce and bump the aircraft, and a new sound joins the ever-present roar of the engines--the clatter of heavy rain lashing the fuselage.

Two minutes later, the sky lightens and the turbulence suddenly stops. We emerge from the spiral band into the clear. A typical spiral band penetration, no big deal. I note the position and strength of the spiral band winds in my log, then turn my attention to the wind readings. The wind has dropped to 50 mph, with a slight shift in direction. Good. With a wind this low between the spiral band and eyewall, it is unlikely that Hugo is more than a category three storm. I check the lower fuselage radar display again. Look at that eyewall! The glowing red donut of the eyewall is closer, only ten minutes away now, and much more impressive. I suppress an urge to call for a climb to 5,000 feet.

I adjust my radar display to zoom in on the eye. The bright oranges and reds of the eyewall lie before us, growing closer and more ominous with each sweep of the radar. The eyewall looks frightening, impenetrable, now just seven minutes away. I suppress another urge to chicken out and order a climb to 5,000 feet. The intercom is silent, but I feel the unspoken tension of the crew. I wait for either Frank or Lowell to order a climb to 5,000 feet. Neither of them do.

Three minutes from the eyewall, now, still time to order a climb to 5,000 feet. I check my wind readings. Winds are well below hurricane force--a mere 60 mph. This is remarkably low, so close to the eyewall. Hugo may not even be a category three storm! I make my final decision not to order a climb to 5,000 feet. We're going in at 1,500! I look out my window at the approaching eyewall, a tall dark wall of forbidding thunderstorm clouds. "Foolish mistake!" I imagine the threatening voice of Hurricane Hugo saying to me.

Continue Story » Into the Eyewall