Hunting Hugo: Deadly Scenarios

I unfasten my seat belt and walk to the back of the aircraft. I take one look down the aisle, and gawk in amazement. The inside of the airplane is trashed. Jim McFadden is there, organizing clean up efforts.

"So no one back here got hurt?" I ask him. As I look in his eyes I see my thoughts and fears mirrored. We both know these may be our last minutes left to live.

He shakes his head, "No, and it's a damn miracle, too. Look at the life raft!" I look to where he motions. Sitting in the center of the aisle is our 200-pound life raft. Jim points to a one-inch dent in the inch-thick steel handrail that runs the length of the ceiling. "The raft hit the ceiling so hard, it put that dent in the handrail. We're lucky no one got killed by the thing!"

I survey the scene of destruction with awe and dismay. No NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft has ever been trashed like this. I step over the life raft, a portable computer with a snarled mass of computer paper bunched around it, and a pile of computer tapes, and survey the galley. It is piled knee-high with an amazing collection of trash, food, utensils, and other gear. The contents of our toilet grace the floor. Alan stands there, surveying the mess.

"Who had the honor of sitting back here?" I ask him.

"I did," he answers gloomily. "The locks failed on all of the drawers back here. It was all I could do to fend off all the soda cans that came flying out of the cooler at me."

I help Jim, Alan, and other crew members pick up the debris and strap things down. It is important to get all the loose gear stowed away, so we don't have a repeat of the dangerous flying missile experience during our next penetration. As we work, we talk about the incredible turbulence we just survived. We talk about the damage to the engines. We don't talk about our odds of survival. When I look anyone in the eye, I see the same sick fear, the same sort of deadly scenarios playing through their minds that are playing through mine: We penetrate the eyewall. Another engine fails. We ditch into the raging seas below. We deploy our life raft, and die one by one as Hugo's 50-foot waves and 160 mph winds capsize our boat and send us to a watery doom.

We put things away as best we can. The things we can't figure out what to do with, we stuff into the bathroom and close and lock the door. We sweat as we work. The air conditioning has been turned off for the fuel dumping operation, and the cabin temperature is 85 degrees.

  • Alan Goldstein stands amidst the debris. The 200-pound liferaft sits in the middle of the aisle
  • Jim McFadden and Hugh Willoughby work to clean up the cabin
  • Debris lies waist-deep in the galley after the penetration of Hugo's eyewall

I return to my seat and look out at the eyewall of Hugo again. It is awesome, fearsome, impenetrable. I feel trapped, helpless, and despondent. To cheer myself up, I snap a series of photographs of the eyewall, hoping that someday I will be able to use them to relate the incredible story of the near-disastrous first encounter with Hurricane Hugo.

The flow of fuel out the fuel dumping pipe slows to a trickle, then stops. I hear Gerry's voice over the intercom. "Okay, we're all done dumping fuel. You can turn back on any equipment you turned off."

Terry and Alan turn the communications equipment back on, and Lowell immediately contacts the TEAL 57, the Air Force C-130 reconnaissance airplane sent into the storm by the National Hurricane Center to provide information on Hugo's position and intensity.

"NOAA 42, this is TEAL 57," radios the voice of Lieutenant Commander Terry Self, aircraft commander of TEAL 57, and veteran of 10 years of hurricane flying. "NOAA 43 has advised us of your situation. Can you give us your position and altitude, and update us on your status?"

"Roger," relies Lowell. "We are circling the eye in a left orbit at 5,000 feet. We've lost the number three engine, and have damage to the number four engine. We'd like you to come fly by and take a look at our number four engine, and inspect us for any other damage we can't see."

"Sure thing, NOAA 42," says Self. "We'll penetrate the west eyewall and come down and have a look at you. TEAL 57 out."

"Ten-four. Thanks, TEAL 57! NOAA 42 out."

The next five minutes we wait anxiously for the Air Force airplane to penetrate the eyewall. They are definitely sticking their necks out for us--I have never heard of an Air Force airplane penetrating an intense hurricane at an altitude less than 10,000 feet. Only the foolish NOAA airplanes risk going in hurricanes at altitudes below 10,000 feet! Finally, the radio crackles back to life with the voice of Commander Self.

"NOAA 42, we are in the eye. We got a terrific pounding going through the west eyewall coming in, but are still in one piece!"

My heart sinks at this news. What chance did we have of making it through the eyewall with only three engines?

"We'll come take a look at you now," continues Self. "What is your current position and heading?"

Lowell gives him our current position and heading, and the two aircraft commanders proceed to coordinate a close fly-by in the eye of Hugo. Fly-bys are dangerous operations in the best of conditions; great caution must be exercised to avoid a mid-air collision. The fact we are circling in the tight and shrinking eye of a category five hurricane makes this an extremely difficult and dangerous maneuver.

But these pilots are the best in the business. They pull off the fly-by, and I watch as TEAL 57 zooms past overhead. I see the faces of TEAL 57's crew looking out the window, and I find myself forlornly wishing I am one of them.

"NOAA 42," reports Self, "we got a good look at your top side and number four engine. There is no obvious damage, other than what appears to be a dislodged de-icing boot hanging from the number four engine. Would you like us to make another pass underneath you to check out the underside of your aircraft?"

"Roger, TEAL 57, let's coordinate another pass so you look at our underside. Thanks!" responds Lowell.

A few minutes later, our pilots pull off another difficult fly by, and TEAL 57 zooms past underneath us.

"NOAA 42, we didn't see any visible damage on the second pass," reports Self. "We're going to exit the eye now through the east eyewall and see how rough it is for you over there. We'll continue penetrating the eyewall until we find a soft spot for you."

"Roger TEAL 57, that'd be greatly appreciated!" replies Lowell.

I say a huge silent THANK YOU to the brave crew of TEAL 57. They are risking their lives for us. The extreme turbulence in Hugo's eyewall almost killed us, but they are willing to brave it multiple times in order to find us safe passage.

They leave their comm link open as they penetrate, and we listen in as Hugo's awesome winds give them a terrible beating.

"Better not try the east eyewall!" Self ruefully informs us, after they finish their penetration. "We'll circle around to the south now, and come into the eye through the south eyewall."

Gerry keeps us circling the eye, but has now pushed us as high as our three engines will take us. We are at 7,000 feet. Any further attempts to climb bring the temperature needle on the overtaxed number four engine into the dangerous red zone. We must exit Hugo's eye at 7,000 feet.

Dave Turner, aircraft commander of NOAA 43, gives us a call.

"NOAA 42, this is NOAA 43. We've just penetrated the eye at 15,000 feet through the west eyewall, and now have sight of you. If can make it up to 15,000, the ride through isn't too bad!"

"Thanks for coming in to check on us!" Lowell replies. "But it looks like we are now at our maximum altitude. We'll have to exit the eye at 7,000 feet. The Air Force airplane is doing penetrations at our altitude to try and find us a soft spot."

"OK, we'll just stay up here at 15,000 and look after you. Four-three out."

As I sit at my station, staring out the window and brooding, my boss Jim McFadden walks up and addresses me:

"I've been talking to NHC on the radio, and they want a vortex report," he says.

I turn to look at him, and angrily reply, "What does it matter? They have the center fix from the Air Force airplane, and all our data will tell them is that it's a category five storm that will destroy whatever it hits." I am irrational, scared, and furious at myself for getting us into this situation.

Jim glowers at me, and I finally mutter acquiescence and fill out the form for the Hurricane Center on Hugo's position, maximum winds, and other data. I walk back to Tom Nunn, the radio operator, and hand him the report. He will radio the data back to Miami.

Sitting next to Tom, I see the reporter from Barbados. I meet her wide-eyed, alarmed gaze, and think I should smile to reassure her, but don't have it in me. She is probably the least frightened among us. For all she knows, this situation is routine on hurricane flights!

I return to my seat to look out on the eyewall and brood some more, and wait for the next penetration of TEAL 57.

  • Image 1 of a 3-image panorama inside Hugo's eye
  • Image 2 of a 3-image panorama inside Hugo's eye
  • Image 3 of a 3-image panorama inside Hugo's eye

A few minutes later, the intercom crackles to life again with the voice of Commander Self.

"NOAA 42, the south eyewall was just as bad as the east eyewall. We're going to take our center fix now and exit through the northeast eyewall, we'll let you know how it goes."

"Roger, TEAL 57, thank you," responded Lowell. "We're going to have to leave the eye soon, though. We are getting low on fuel."

"Ten-four, NOAA 42, we'll try and find you a soft spot."

I look out the window at the fearsome, roiling eyewall of Hugo, hoping it won't be my last sight. We will have to leave the eye in just a few more minutes, regardless of whether the Air Force airplane can find a soft spot. I say a prayer for our safety and the Air Force airplane's crew. I check the area around my station, making sure everything is securely stowed away. I wait. We have been in the eye of Hugo almost an hour.

Finally, the intercom comes to life again.

"NOAA 42, this is TEAL 57. We have just penetrated the northeast eyewall, and it wasn't too bad! You might want to give it a try. If you look on your radar display, you should be able to see where a weakness has developed in the northeast eyewall."

I look over at my radar display. Sure enough, an area of weaker echoes has developed in a narrow section of the northeast eyewall. If we can hit the soft spot just right, the ride might not be too rough. I wonder how long it will take us to maneuver to get lined up for a shot at it.

Not long, it turns out. Gerry's voice, terse and determined, comes in over the intercom:

"Okay, we're going to follow the Air Force airplane out now. Make sure all gear is stowed away. Set Condition One!"

The klaxon sounds overhead, warning of upcoming turbulence. The big plane suddenly rolls out of its steep turn and levels out, headed for the northeast eyewall. The huge, imposing wall of white boiling clouds rushes towards us at high speed. I buckle my shoulder harness, hang on the table with both hands, and pray for safe passage.

Continue Story » Out of the Eye