Flying Through A Hurricane

Back in July 1996, I flew through the eye of Hurricane Bertha. I wrote about it then, but it’s been mostly forgotten. I thought this might be a good time to repost it here:

The most common question I’ve been asked the past two days is, “Why would you ever fly into the eye of a hurricane?” Fair question.

First of all, I have convinced myself that it isn’t dangerous. Think about it. Career government employees. Not exactly a prescription for risk takers. The plane, a 31 year old Lockheed C-130 Hercules, seems incredibly sturdy and is as stylish as a UPS truck.

Second, it sounded like a great story. Interesting, informative, maybe even a little exciting.

Any time there’s a tropical system worth investigating, the Air Force flies to a forward base and sets up shop. The idea is to have two planes with almost continuous penetrations of the eye. This week, the 53rd Weather Recon Squadron USAF (reserve) was at Homestead AFB in Florida. It’s an eerie starting point, considering wreckage from Hurricane Andrew still litters the base and surrounding town.

Flight time to Bertha would be about 2 hours and we’d be in the air for anywhere from 10 to 12 hours. That meant 69,000 pounds of fuel in the wings, under the wings, and in a 10,000 pound tank adjacent to the port-a-john in the ‘cabin’. And enough noise from the four prop engines to force everyone to wear earplugs or earphones.

Being on the ground during a major hurricane will change you. They’re not surprises like tornadoes or earthquakes, yet they cause damage that’s often more widespread and impossible to prevent. And there’s the paradox of the eye, an area where the strongest and weakest winds are amazingly close. A hurricane’s eye passing overhead is so enticing that people have been known to leave shelters only to be ‘zapped’ as the storm started up again.

Leaving Homestead, we flew directly toward the storm. Miami Center didn’t need to vector us – we weren’t going to run into much company. Not many people do this as a hobby. At 20,000 feet the ride was smooth.

A little over 100 miles out, we descended to 10,000 feet and started taking readings. Temperature, dew point, barometer, wind speed and direction. The sea surface below had enough whitecaps and spray to show the wind direction, even at altitude. Intermittently there were patches of green. The Air Force manual carried by just about everyone on board said that that was an indication of winds over 40 knots. The clouds thickened. There was rain, hitting the windshield at almost 300 mph. My photographer, J.P. Coleman, and I made our way up the stairs onto the flight deck.

My commercial flight to Florida had two in the cockpit. This flight had five, and they all seemed to be working. I started to interview the pilot, a Lt. Colonel, until he stopped for a radio call and then a checklist. The radar, mounted on the plane’s dash, about where the radar detector is on my car’s dash, started showing a somewhat circular green area. This was Bertha.

The blip moved closer to the radar’s center as we approached. I started thinking about the turbulence. How the plane would pitch and roll. How my stomach would trick me into thinking I was about to die, when I was only going to throw up. There are hand holds in the cockpit and I grabbed one, but a funny thing happened. Nothing!

All right, not quite nothing but close. We shook for ten, maybe twelve seconds before settling back to smooth flight.

As it turns out, Bertha was “Big” Bertha because of size, not strength. The eye was not round, but oval. It had more holes than Albert Hall (If you understand this, Ann B. Davis is Schultzy, if you don’t she’s Alice).

The eye was where the real work would be done. In the back, a Master Sergeant prepared a cylindrical instrument pod called a radiosonde. He watched the wind speed at altitude. From 70 to 50 to 30 knots. And then to single digits. As the wind dipped he typed “launch” on a keyboard and the radiosonde slipped out the tube. We knew from the rate of descent that its parachute had opened. It was transmitting back to the plane while falling at about 1,000 feet per minute. As soon as we got the numbers, they were satellited to the Hurricane Center and relayed to the National Weather Service data feeds. All of a sudden, anyone with a computer could get the results of Bertha’s physical.

These numbers are still the absolutely best way to fix the hurricane’s location and estimate her strength. Lower pressure, higher temperature, bigger storm. There is currently no better way to know this than by penetrating in a plane.

And that’s the way the day went. Ten and a half hours in the air with hardly a bump. We flew 100 plus mile legs in a bowtie shaped pattern, passing through the eyewall four times.

So, what did I get out of it? Well, two live phoners, from the flight deck, at 6 and 11. The airchecks are nowhere to be found, but I’m told it sounded exotic and dangerous. That’s probably because we went from the plane to the ground via single sideband shortwave radio and had to say, “over” all the time. Today (July 11) , we aired two separate packages at 6 and 11. And, I’ve gotten a little more insight into the data I use from the National Hurricane Center.

I’d do it again