Hunting Hugo: Out of the Eye
We hit the eyewall. Darkness falls. Intense blasts of turbulent wind rock the airplane. Torrential rain hammers the fuselage. The winds shoot up to 170 mph, gusting to 190. The three remaining engines whine and roar as Gerry fights off a powerful updraft. The turbulence is rough, but survivable. We cross the inner eyewall without hitting any incredible jolts like nearly knocked us from the sky on our way in.
Half a minute gone, one minute to go. The turbulence lessens. The updrafts and downdrafts diminish, the winds drop to 150 mph. We are definitely in a weak region of the eyewall! The radar display shows yellows and greens surrounding us, where before there were only the strongest reds and oranges.
One minute gone, half a minute to go. The airplane is barely shaking now, the turbulence is so light. It is hard to believe we are in the eyewall of Hugo! We are not ready to celebrate yet, though. Hugo is not to be trusted. The big plane lumbers on towards the edge of the eyewall.
Finally, SUNSHINE! YES! We made it! The sullen dark clouds of the eyewall slip away, and the suns shines down at us through a thin veil of high cirrus clouds. A huge smile of jubilation replaces my worried frown.
Praise God! The sun never looked so good. We are alive! We survived the eyewall of Hugo a second time! I can hear cheers ringing out from the crew in the cabin behind me.
"Nice flying, Gerry!" I call out over the intercom.
"That wasn't too bad," Gerry replies, matter-of-factly.
Lowell contacts the Air Force airplane.
"TEAL 57, we have just penetrated the northeast eyewall with no problem, right where you said to go. Thanks for finding a route for us! You guys really saved our butts!"
"Great news, NOAA 42, glad you made it! Do you require further assistance?" radios back Captain Self.
"No, we'll be heading back to Barbados with NOAA 43 to watch over us.
Good luck with the remainder of your mission. Have a safe flight!"
"We'll do that, NOAA 42. Good luck with the remainder of your flight. TEAL 57 out."
I say a prayer of safe passage for the Air Force airplane, and bid them a big silent "THANK YOU!" They put their lives on the line for us, and I owe them my life and eternal gratitude. Hail to the brave crew of TEAL 57!
Now well clear of the eyewall, we turn and head for Barbados, an hour and a half away. NOAA 43 appears out the right window, hovering protectively over us. The sight of our sister aircraft feels very reassuring. I still feel unsafe in our aircraft, fearing some unseen damage from the incredible forces we have encountered.
I unbuckle my seat belt and shoulder harness, and head back to the galley. Most of the crew are gathering there, trading stories on what we've just been through.
"It feels a little better now, outside the eye!" Bob Burpee exclaims.
"I would have been OK if I hadn't seen us lose number three," a jittery Terry Schricker adds.
"What happened to number three?" asks Hugh Willoughby.
"It exploded!" Terry exclaims. "Flames were shooting 30 feet aft of the airplane. I swear I could feel the heat of the fire through the wall!"
"You probably did!" I remark. "That thing puts out a lot of heat!"
Terry looks at me with dark, frightened eyes. "I'm all done flying," He says emphatically. "At least, flying into hurricanes. This is my last flight!"
I look at him and think to myself, "Amen, brother!"
Hurricane Hugo smashed through the Caribbean and Southeastern U.S. with incredible fury over the next week, killing hundreds and causing over $9 billion in damage--the most destructive hurricane in history, at the time. Most of the crew of NOAA 42 flew in Hugo again, on our undamaged sister aircraft. But for Terry Schricker and myself, the nearly disastrous first penetration of Hurricane Hugo's eye was our last flight. Terry stayed on in a non-flying role, and I quit the hurricane hunters a few months later.
NOAA 42 spent a month on Barbados undergoing a thorough check of its structural integrity before it was cleared to fly back to Florida, where it received a three-month long maintenance overhaul. No hurricane-related damage to the aircraft was found, except for the missing de-icing boot on the #4 engine and a failed fuel control sensor on the #3 engine. The instrument that recorded the amazing G-forces the aircraft encountered was found to be accurate, and engineers analyzing the data could only conclude that luck and the toughness of the P-3 airplane saved us from destruction. The aircraft continues to fly into hurricanes to this day. Later analysis of the data taken during our amazing flight into Hugo revealed that we hit a tornado-like vortex embedded in the eyewall when the hurricane was at its peak intensity. These eyewall vortices had been suspected but never before observed, and ongoing research suggests that similar vortices may be responsible for some of the incredible damage hurricanes can inflict when they strike land. When the next mighty hurricane threatens our coast, the Hurricane Hunters will be in the storm to learn more. Say a prayer for them.