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Hurricane hunters stalk Wilma

NOAA  hurricane hunters are  gathering data about Wilma's speed, strength and direction by flying directly into the storm itself.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the pilot turns on the “Fasten Seat Belts” sign in this plane, it’s not a good idea to linger.

When the sign lights up, the Lockheed WP-3D Orion is about ready to fly into a nasty band of thunderstorms or slam right into the eye wall of the monster storm called Wilma, which will do its best to batter the aircraft and knock it out of the darkened sky.

For the 10-person crew of the Orion, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunter plane, the mission is critical. They are gathering data about the speed, strength and direction of the storm for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. That information helps the hurricane center track the storm and let coastal residents know if they should flee or stay put.

It’s a wild and noisy ride. Much of the time it feels like bumping along in the bed of a 1973 Ford pickup truck on a pockmarked dirt road. Other times, when the wind shears are tearing at the Orion’s wings, the bottom falls out suddenly and there is a brief free fall.

Which is why the plane stocks a liberal supply of barf bags.

Nine hours of hurricane hunting
Thursday’s nine-hour mission was first for the hurricane hunters into Wilma, which earlier in the week had strengthened into a massive Category 5 storm. The four-engine, turboprop plane is one of a pair of WP-3D Orions built for NOAA in the mid-’70s. Decals on the outside show it to be a veteran of 79 tropical storms and hurricanes, starting with Bonnie in 1976.

Inside, it’s a melange of work stations, computers, radar screens and state-of-the-art electronics that record barometric pressure inside the storm to determine its strength, wind speed at different altitudes, direction and exact location.

“The purpose is not only to fix the storm but to make repeated passes and notice trends,” says Jack Parrish, a veteran NOAA meteorologist and flight director. “All the clues are out there if we know how to find them.”

Flying out of their base at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., the Orion set a course for the Caribbean and Wilma, which was then plodding north about 100 miles east of Cozumel, Mexico. The mission would focus on mapping the wind field, to determine how far out from the eye the hurricane-force and tropical storm-force winds extended.

An hour or so out of Tampa and flying at 10,000 feet, the Orion starts bumping around as it runs into the first of Wilma’s outer bands in the strait between Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Still 200 miles from the eye, the sky is a soup of thick clouds, and pilots Tom Strong and Mark Leonard are flying blind.

A little while later, Parrish leans over and points to a spot on the radar screen.

“There,” he says, “is the eye.”

Evidence of a strong storm
Amid the blue, green and yellow on-screen mess, an almost perfect circle creeps into view. The storm’s eye is about 40 miles across and well-formed, he explains, which means Wilma is nasty business.

“Anytime it’s that symmetrical, it’s very, very healthy,” Parrish says.

As the plane approaches the eye wall from the north, electronics tech Bill Olney releases the first “sonde,” an 18-inch cardboard-wrapped cylinder that continuously records weather data as it descends toward the sea on a parachute. It departs through a tube and emits a long whistle on the way out. Fifteen of them at $750 apiece will be expelled during this mission.

For the crew and passengers, crashing into the eye wall means several minutes of rough and tumble turbulence from the white sky and rain beating against the windows. Then it is calm, and Strong turns off the seat-belt sign.

“We’re through the eye wall, heading toward the center,” he tells the crew.

In the eye, the sea is visible through wispy clouds. Whitecaps on massive waves are clearly visible even at 10,000 feet. The plane is surrounded by defined banks of clouds that are the circular bands of Wilma.

High-altitude data recording
Martin Mayeaux is acting flight director this time, under Parrish’s tutelage. Once in the eye, it’s his job to find the spot where there’s no wind and direct the pilots to it. From there, data recording begins in haste as the plane flies through the eye and into the storm on the other side.

Mayeaux uses a satellite phone to call numbers into the hurricane center, and also sends them via the Internet. He records a maximum wind speed of 145 mph — a solid Category 4 — on the first pass, with lesser numbers on the next two passes through the eye. That could be evidence the storm is weakening, but it’s hard to tell.

One thing they know for sure is that Wilma is massive — hurricane-force winds extended 65 miles from the eye and tropical storm-force winds out to 200 miles.

Parrish, 51, who has recorded 475 passes through the eyes of hurricanes, knows better than to try to predict too much from the data collected on a single mission.

“We have to wait for the pieces to be added to the puzzle,” he says. “We’re just one piece.”

It’s dark before the plane turns north out of Wilma and heads for calmer skies and the Florida peninsula. There will be several more missions before the storm arrives.