The adventures of hurricane hunters

To track a hurricane, forecasters rely heavily on the work of hurricane hunters who fly directly into the eye of the storm in order to collect vital data. In this segment, we meet the hurricane hunters and find out about the specialized aircrafts and instruments that make these missions possible.


To track a hurricane, forecasters rely heavily on the work of hurricane hunters, who fly directly into the eye of the storm in order to collect vital data.

In this segment, we meet the hurricane hunters and find out about the specialized aircraft and instruments that make these missions possible.

We'll generally fly into the eye, and then it will take us two hours to do it again.

So we'll fly out and then back through, so a triangle pattern in between.

And what we're doing is -- we're collecting data around the perimeter of the storm.

Most people avoid severe storms.

Hurricane hunters fly precise routes tropical storms.

Each storm is different and each storm is a living, breathing thing.

It's going through a life cycle, right?

So it's enhancing and gets to a mature stage and then, eventually, it dissipates.

The data collected by the flight crew and weather crew on the plane is the only way to precisely locate the eye of the storm.

It's called fixing the eye.

Because the only data that they have available to them to forecast, at that point, is satellite data.

They can see what they think could be the eye, but the eye will generally -- It will dissipate and redevelop.

So they need to find that exact center, because they put that information and that pressure into their forecast models, and that generates better models, better forecasts.

The modified C-130 propeller-driven aircraft fly through the eye wall at the center of the storm, crisscrossing it multiple times from 1,000 to 10,000 feet.

So, a lot of data is gathered from the aircraft itself.

We have sensors on the airplane unlike any other C-130 that help us gather weather data.

But then one of the main instruments we do use to drop out of the bottom of the airplane is called the sonde, or a dropsonde.

And it falls under a drogue parachute.

It falls at about 2,500 feet per minute.

And then as it falls, several times a second, it's sampling pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed.

So we get a nice vertical profile of the atmosphere, from the altitude of the aircraft down to the surface of the ocean.

The data will be used in creating the forecast track for the storm.

Typically, we'll drop one in the eye wall, in bound into the center, we'll drop one in the center, and then we'll drop another one in the eye wall, outbound from the storm.

If we notice something interesting, like some maximum winds or a strong rainband, we'll drop one in those, as well.

Typically, in any storm, we're dropping about a dozen, maybe 15 of those dropsondes.

All of that information is vital to forecasters because of the way a hurricane forms and grows.

Hurricanes are born in areas where vast stretches of ocean are warmed to 82 degrees.

Warm, moist air rises over those hot spots, creating thunderstorms.

Upper-level and surface winds come together to form circular clouds and a tropical depression.

That's the signature spinning cloud pattern.

That central area of the spinning clouds becomes the eye of the storm.

It has the lowest pressure and it's calm.

The surrounding eye wall has the highest winds.

As the air from the sea surface is pulled in towards the eye, it rises and cools, releasing moisture and heat.

The heat causes the air to rise farther.

That continues building and driving the hurricane.

It's also why so much rain comes with a tropical storm.

The storms are pushed by trade winds.

However, once a hurricane arrives over cold water or land, the energy supply is cut.

The storm breaks apart.

Hurricanes are not just a point on the map, and the deadly hazards can occur far from the center, outside of the cone, and then it's not just about wind.

You know, we think of tropical storms and hurricanes as these big wind machines, right?

And the wind can be damaging and deadly.

But 9 out of 10 people who die in U.S. land-falling tropical systems die due to water.

The goal for a meteorologist is to see what is happening in the storm, as well as the surrounding ocean and atmosphere.

That data helps researchers better forecast what the storm will do next.

And that's why as one team of hurricane hunters flies through the storm, there's another team flying around the storm.

This tail Doppler radar gives us a cross section through the entire storm environment.

It's akin to looking at a cake and taking a nice slice through it and looking at all the layers of that cake.

We can look at all the layers of the storm from 45,000 feet, down to the surface of the ocean.

Commander Doug MacIntyre pilots this modified Gulfstream jet.

He grew up in Durham.

We can not only study the storm itself but actually study the air and weather systems that surround the storm.

My best example of this is for Hurricane Matthew.

We were able to take off out of Saint Croix, fly into the Atlantic Ocean, sample the air mass in the Atlantic, circumnavigate the entire storm, getting all the readings and data from the storm environment, and then transit over to the Gulf of Mexico, sampling the air mass there.

NOAA meteorologists say the data from hurricane-hunter teams provides a complete picture of a hurricane.

And that can increase the accuracy of forecasts by 30%.

We are not here, you know, at a popularity contest.

We're here to, you know, protect lives and property.

And so when we say it's gonna be bad, you know, people really need to take heed.