INSIDE HURRICANE IKE — Amid the engines' roar, the Air Force Reserve pilots and navigator worked calmly as their huge plane neared the eyewall of Hurricane Ike.
The gray cloud, looming 50,000 feet into the sky like a colossal concrete barrier was four miles thick, and the Lockheed WC-130J was hurtling into it.
"It's a big one, and it's going to get bigger," said Lt. Col. Mark Carter, 54, a pilot who has chased storms for 31 years. "It's off land now, and feeding on the warm water down there while it gets itself back together."
"Down there" is 10,000 feet below, where the swirling dark water and foaming waves of the Gulf of Mexico are only visible intermittently through the clouds.
Carter, and his fellow Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, were finishing a fourth trip across Ike, during a 10-hour, 3,000-mile trek to monitor the storm taking aim at the Texas coast.
The aircraft carved a 210-mile giant "X" pattern through Ike and its eye, just off the western tip of Cuba.
"We're the only military aircraft that has permission to fly through Cuban airspace," said public information officer Maj. Chad Gibson. "We share the information we gather with them."
Using high tech equipment aboard the $72 million plane, the crew gathers data on wind speed, barometric pressure and other information for the National Hurricane Center.
"The plane makes two observations a second," said Maj. Deeann Lufkin, 35, a meteorologist who stood behind a bank of screens as she monitored the storm.
Hunters are civilian reservists
Lufkin, who has more than 50 hurricane flights behind her, took the jostling of the storm as easily as a New York City subway rider handles rush hour.
"I love this job," said Lufkin, whose husband is also a Hurricane Hunter. "It is endlessly fascinating, and it is also extremely important. We provide information the satellites can't get. And we provide something satellites will never have — a human eye and brain."
The C-130 has been a workhorse of the U.S. military for nearly five decades, is a squat, broad aircraft, painted dull gray, with four black propellers curving over the wings like exotic flowers.
Inside, it resembles a high-tech auto mechanic's garage. Metal grids on the floor offer secure places to stash equipment, insulation covers most of the walls and ceilings, wires shake everywhere, red mesh behind the armless seats offer something to grab onto when the plane starts bucking and tilting in a storm.
Despite its plain looks, Tech. Sgt. Scott Blair, a big man with close-cropped gray hair and tattoos running up his arms, calls the aircraft his girlfriend.
"I've been married 21 years," said Blair, 38, who runs Fat Boy's BBQ restaurant in Picayune. Miss., when not flying into storms. "She's never had call to be jealous until I started flying on this plane. Now she calls it my mistress."
Flights can run as long as 15 hours, not counting preflight and post-flight briefings.
Once ordered into a storm, the 10 crews made up of six people each, fly on a rotating basis, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
Four aircraft lost since 1943
The flights go into everything from developing tropical storms to Category 5 hurricanes. But they don't fly into a storm over land because of the danger of tornadoes.
Since the flights officially began in 1943, only four Hurricane Hunter planes have been lost in the bump and grind through the clouds — the last in 1974.
It doesn't take much to draw out stories of the storms that have tilted the plane at dangerous angles, sent shudders down its metal spine and through its human occupants, banging untethered people against the ceiling as ride-along journalists scramble for plastic bags amid lurching stomachs.
Blair, who dozed in free in-flight moments with a copy of the book "Unholy War" spread across his stomach, was nonchalant about the Ike flight.
But he remembers others that were more eventful.
"Hurricane Charlie, what was that '03, '04?" Blair said. "That almost beat us to death. We made a pass through it as a Category 2, and 45 minutes later, when we went back through, it was a Cat 4. Every reporter on board had a bag up to his face."
The storms are most dangerous as they build or break apart, Blair said. That's when a potentially deadly microburst of wind and huge up-and downdrafts threaten the plane.
Dangerous or not, the flights, with their combination of boredom and adrenaline-pumping moments, appear to be addictive.
"I'm going to keep doing this until I get too old or my hearing goes," Blair said. "Then I'll just sit up in Picayune (Miss.) and drink beer and eat barbecue and dream about it."
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