Hunting Hugo: The Eye of Hugo

"WE'VE GOT FIRE COMING OUT OF NUMBER THREE!" Terry's urgent cry shatters the stunned silence on the intercom.

"And I see something hanging from number four," adds Sean, his voice sounding strangely calm.

For several eternal terrifying seconds, I watch the massive, white-frothed waves below us grow huge and close. I wait for impact, praying for survival. With two engines damaged, both on the same wing, I know that our odds are not good.

But my prayers are answered by the cool, professional reaction of the cockpit crew. Gerry snaps us up out of the right-rolling dive, a perilous 880 feet from the water. Steve Wade hits the kill switch on engine number three, and the 30-foot long flames shooting out of it die as the flow of fuel chokes off. Lowell and Frank take charge of keeping us in the eye, scanning the inside to size up where our path should take us.

A dark mass of clouds lies directly ahead, seconds away. Is it the eyewall? Or merely harmless low scud in the eye? There is no time think, no time to plan the best flight path. We must turn now to avoid the clouds. If we hit the eyewall again at this altitude, the storm will surely kill us. We must stay in the eye.

"It's clear to the right!" Lowell shouts out. Immediately, Gerry throws us into a hard right roll. I look at my radar display, and quickly compute our position. A right turn is the wrong choice! We popped into the eye off-center, on its right side, and now must trace out an almost impossibly tight four-mile diameter circle to stay in the eye. The dark clouds that Gerry turned us from were merely harmless low level scud in the eye. We should have turned left! It is too late to call for a course change, though. We are committed to this turn.

Tense seconds pass. I watch the wind speed indicator as the winds slowly increase--30 mph, 40 mph, 50 mph. The eyewall grows closer, a huge ominous wall of seething dark clouds spinning past my window. Gerry has us banked over as far as he dares, at a 30 degree angle. The airplane cannot sustain a tighter turn without its number three engine.

I can see only a blurred, white wall of clouds, frighteningly close, out my window. I lean out into the aisle to see the view out the cockpit window. The view is the same--a white wall of turbulent clouds spinning by at a dizzying speed. I see Frank standing up, craning his head towards the right upper window, straining to see where we are headed. "Keep on coming!" I hear him call out to the pilots. The left wingtip is now just a few hundred feet from the eyewall.

A fist of clouds protrudes out from the eyewall, blocking our path. We penetrate. Turbulence rocks the aircraft. The winds jump to 75 mph, hurricane force. We are in the eyewall. Gerry banks us even harder right, a 35 degree roll. We are dangerously close to stalling. An eternal few seconds later, we emerge into the eye again.

"Keep on coming!" I hear Frank say, once again.

Again, eyewall clouds grab at the airplane, shaking us with frightening turbulence. Another eternity later, we pop out in the clear as Gerry maneuvers us out of the clouds, keeping us barely within the eye. We are now fast approaching the deadly part of the eyewall where we originally entered the eye. Our turn is nearly complete.

"That's it, you've got it!" I hear Frank exclaim.

Gerry relaxes the steep bank, and heads us into the center of the eye. A few seconds later, he puts us into a left roll that will keep us comfortably in the eye for as long as we want to circle. He brings the nose of the aircraft up, and we begin a steady spiraling climb. The immediate danger is past.

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