Hunting Hugo: Awesome, Terrifying, Supernatural

I look out my window, and behold the eye of Hurricane Hugo in its full fury. It is awesome, terrifying, supernatural. the eyewall, a towering prison of blinding-white, boiling, virulent clouds, rings us on all sides. We are so low that I can see beneath the ragged bottom edge of the eyewall clouds, where Hugo's 160 mph surface winds whip the ocean surface into a greenish-white blur. Below us, the ocean churns in a frightening chaotic frenzy of colliding 50-foot high waves.

I watch with fascinated dread as white masses of tortured clouds bulge in and out along the eyewall, the whole structure slowly rotating around us.

  • The cockpit G-meter, pegged at +5.6 G's and -3.9 G's
  • Jet fuel squirts out a tube into the ocean below during the fuel dumping operation
  • Zoomed-in radar image of Hugo's eye, showing the flight path of the aircraft and winds

"You are not welcome here," I imagine the fearsome voice of Hurricane Hugo saying, "and I may well destroy you for your insolence, for you must penetrate my eyewall one more time to escape." I angrily curse myself for failing my primary duty, ensuring the safety of the mission from a meteorological perspective. My job today is done. It is now up to Gerry and Lowell to get us out of the crisis I got us into.

Lowell's voice comes on the intercom: "OK, we're going to circle in the eye as long as we can and climb to our maximum altitude before we attempt to punch out through the eyewall. Is anyone injured back there?"

Jim McFadden's shaken voice responds, "We're all OK back here, but the cabin is a mess!"

"All right," Lowell continues, "Number three engine is shut down, and it looks like we got the fire fully extinguished. Can anyone back there take a good look at number four and tell us what it looks like?"

Across the aisle from me, Sean looks out his window and responds, "It looks like it might be a dislodged de-icing boot."

"Well, let's hope it doesn't tear of and get caught in the propeller," says Lowell. "We need to lighten the plane up as much as possible to gain altitude, so we'll be dumping fuel. I'll want all communications equipment and electrical gear that could cause a spark powered off."

A new voice, that of Dave Turner, commander of NOAA 43, breaks in: "NOAA 42, this is NOAA 43, come in."

"Dave, we can't talk now!" cries Lowell. "We've got a serious emergency on board! We're in the eye with only three engines, have damage to another, and are preparing to dump fuel."

"Oh my!" says Dave. There is a pause as the seriousness of our situation sinks in. "Okay, we'll come into the eye and look out for you. I'll also advise the Air Force airplane of your situation, they are closer to the eye than we are."

"Thanks Dave, we're going to dump fuel now, so this will be our last communication for about 15 minutes. We'll give you a call when we're finished. Please advise Miami of our situation. Four-two out."

"Good luck, four-two! Four-three out."

Everyone on NOAA 43, I know, is feeling tremendous concern and empathy for our plight. They know the hazards of hurricane hunting. Now, some of their own are living a hurricane hunter's nightmare.

I leave my seat, and step into the cockpit to confer with Lowell. Pete Black is there, too.

"So what's the plan, Lowell?" I ask.

"We've got to stay in the eye and lighten the aircraft up as much as possible," Lowell responds. He does not look up from the controls as he talks. He sounds very worried, but is focused, in command. I look across the cockpit at Gerry. He is concentrating intensely on flying, keeping the airplane safely within the eye and steadily climbing. Between Lowell and Gerry, flight engineer Steve Wade intently eyes the engine gauges, and keeps a particularly close eye on the #4 engine's temperature gauge, which hovers near the red zone.

"The cockpit G-meter shows we took five and half G's up and three and half G's down," continues Lowell, now sounding really concerned. "The P-3 is only rated to plus three and minus two G's, so we may have some serious structural damage. We'll have to climb as high as we can and find a part of the eyewall to exit through with a minimum of turbulence."

"Five and half G's!" I exclaim, looking at Pete in amazement and trepidation. No hurricane hunter aircraft has ever taken more than three G's. We are lucky to be alive.

A sudden thought comes to mind. I turn to Pete.

"Hey Pete! How many AXBTs do we have on board, and how much do they weigh apiece?" For this mission, we had planned to drop a bunch of Air Expendable Bathythermographs (AXBTs), which radio back measurements of water temperature and ocean current speed.

Pete looks at me, and realizes what I have in mind.

"Twenty-two, and they weigh 30 pounds apiece!" he answers enthusiastically.

"Let's chuck 'em overboard, that'll lighten us up another 660 pounds!" I say.

"Every bit will help!" adds Lowell. He contacts Terry over the intercom and gives the order to launch all the AXBTs. Over the next few minutes, Terry fires all 22 of the probes into the ocean.

While Terry launches the AXBTs, Alan works to power down all the communications and electrical equipment that could potentially cause a spark and ignite the fuel. When we're done, the only equipment running are the essential Inertial Navigation Units, and the engines themselves. Alan also leaves on the main data computer to collect data, with the hope of being alive someday to analyze it.

"Lowell, we're ready back here for fuel dumping," says Alan over the intercom. "Everything is powered down."

"Roger, we'll begin dumping now," replies Lowell.

I watch as a stream of jet fuel squirts out into the air through a three inch wide tube slung under the left wing. It will take about 15 minutes to dump 15,000 of our 50,000 pounds of fuel. As we dump fuel, Gerry will keep us steadily climbing.

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