The first pass is a blind groping in the trust that something will be there. It helps to believe in it, the navigator says.
He is talking about the eye of the hurricane, and not just the eye, but the eye’s center — the ultimate reference point. The goal is to cross it as many times as possible, as perfectly as possible.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron has been setting its sights on that tell-tale point for the better part of a week now, flying a massive WC-130J with a belly full of weather equipment — first into the center of Hurricane Iselle and now into Hurricane Julio as it spun out Category 1 winds some 380 miles east-northeast of Hilo on Saturday. This was the Hurricane Hunters’ third mission into Julio, a 10- to 12-hour journey with a five-man crew. Each works at separate stations, comprehensively mapping the hurricane’s winds, center and course.
They are hunting big wind, and as the plane punches the eyewall on a second pass, the hunters find some. The wind reading spikes to 110 mph in the northeast of Julio’s center, and the plane’s cargo hold sways. The weather officer gestures toward an empty canvas seat strapped against the starboard wall.
“You better sit down,” he advises.
Outside the windows, it’s a wall of flying white.
I draw on tools I’ve gained from 10 years of crab fishing: keep your worries at bay, focus on the task at hand and trust in the team.
This is just a bump; it’s nothing yet.
Still a place for old traditions
Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, chief meteorologist for the Hurricane Hunters, gets the question all the time: In the age of satellites, why do this?
Besides the fact that satellites don’t peer through cloud cover very well, there is another reason why charging through a storm bedecked with weather instruments is still a valid practice: accuracy. A forecast track that doesn’t nail down the storm’s center and direction is an imprecise tool.
Days out, it could compound into hundreds of miles of error in the projected path of destruction.
“Hurricanes are extremely expensive,” Talbot says. “The U.S. spends about $193 million to prepare for a big hurricane. You’re evacuating homes, offshore platforms; you’re activating emergency services and FEMA, you’re shutting businesses down. We’re talking huge impacts. If you can make that hurricane warning area as small as possible, you can reduce that impact.”
National Weather Service forecasters are keenly aware of this. After all, the weather service is the agency that calls up the Hunters and outlines their tasks.
“It’s one of those missions where you know you’re making a difference,” Talbot says. “It’s one of those things where you know you have to get up and leave your family behind.”
The struggle can get personal. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, it wiped out the homes of 30 percent of the people in the Hurricane Hunters organization. Talbot saw 4 feet of water and furniture piled up in the home of one Hunter.
“He had to spend the next six months rebuilding a house he’d just moved into,” Talbot says. “Times like that, it’s a challenge to keep your head in the game, when you know your family’s been living in a hotel for two months.”
For those with an insatiable appetite to pick apart the dynamics of these massive thermal engines, Hawaii has become the playing field.
“The Atlantic has been dead this year,” says relief pilot Byron Hudgins, as he scans ahead for weather anomalies on a pass through Julio.
The Atlantic has seen only two named storms this year, a short list in comparison to the East Pacific. Talbot believes that El Nino, a cyclical pattern of warmer ocean temperatures, may account for the shift in storm activity.
“We’ve had a lot more hurricanes going on out here than in the last several years,” Talbot says. “We had three going on at once: Genevieve, Iselle and Julio. 1993 was an El Nino year. That was the last time we spent significant time here. Potentially that’s what could be happening.”
On the flight deck, the mission has suddenly gotten more interesting. Hudgins is in the pilot seat, co-pilot Capt. Chase Allen is to his right, and they are rolling through Julio at 10,000 feet, dodging turbulence. Navigator Sid Smith is glued to his radar screen as the plane surfs the waves of wind it can’t avoid and tries to turn away from others. The crew is communicating in spare, clipped phrases — “I’d say we start sliding left — slide left!” Red blots on Smith’s radar screen are heavy with moisture. Some are so thick the radar cannot penetrate and registers as blue-colored noise.
The airmen keep each other alert with quick, steady banter.
“We have to fly through things other people avoid,” is how Talbot explains it. “Sometimes the navigator is an extra pair of eyes to make sure we avoid the worst of the worst.”
The crew is on the lookout for storm cells that register on radar with sharp edges. They’re looking for updrafts, extreme turbulence, and mesocyclones — spinning vortices that can appear along the inside of the eyewall. One of the Hunters’ 10 planes was jammed down on its side as it plunged into such a formation in 2012. The norm is a fairly uneventful ride, but every now and then the Hunters crew wishes they had chosen to take the way around rather than through.
“Our guys are very well trained,” Talbot says. “We do this very carefully and judiciously and we’re proud of our safety record.”
All told, this is a cakewalk for the flight deck.
“It’s pretty benign. Makes for an easy day,” says a relaxed, smiling Aircraft Commander Jared Hamblin on one of his passes through the cargo hold.
Below the plane, an area of highly disturbed air looks like a bowl in the clouds. In another part of Julio, bands of clouds streak out in curved rows bending to either side. In the very eye, billowing ocean waves roll along, “big as houses,” as one crewman describes them. I stand on the flight deck behind the pilots and lose myself in shooting photos.
Science in flight
Dropsonde operator Rick Cumbo has his work carefully charted. At intervals, he strides through the hold of the WC-130J, firing dropsonde canisters and research buoys through two steel tubes. Each time a payload is ejected, it reverberates in the hold like a huge toilet flushing. And as they fall, the dropsondes send back two pages of text per second of wind speeds, barometric pressure and other readings.
Just aft of Cumbo, Midshipman Sara Reynolds of the U.S. Naval Academy is crouched over a data receiver. Her research buoys plunge into the sea and sink, and data on water temperature pours across Reynolds’ screen. Like all hurricanes, Julio is pulling energy from the water, and Reynolds is in the midst of a project to determine how much heat is absorbed by a passing hurricane. She took the same measurements on flights into Iselle, and is particularly interested in waters where the track of Julio and Iselle have overlapped.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be up here,” she says.
Sympathy for the storm
Although cyclones have been popping up abundantly in the Eastern Pacific, Hawaii is traditionally hard on hurricanes. Born in the humid atmosphere off the west coast of Mexico and Central America, the systems gain strength and head west, only to choke on dry air, wander into waters too cold to support them, and blunder into wind shear that eats at their structural integrity as they approach Hawaii. Or, traditionally, they’ve just wandered elsewhere.
Most storms have fizzled, sputtered and glanced past. But that doesn’t mean Hawaii can breathe easy. A cyclone heading north from warm waters south of the islands could strike a devastating blow, Talbot says.
The weather officer has a mass of data at his work station, including sea surface wind speeds measured by a radiometer that calculates radiation from wave action on the ocean. He also has results from wind gauges on the plane’s nose, and a fairly complete if unofficial picture of Hurricane Julio and where it is headed.
Julio is a minimal hurricane with 75 mph winds, he says. Additional cold waters appear to have accelerated weakening. The track of the cyclone has turned even further north, away from the island chain, than forecasters had anticipated.
The prognosis for Julio seems to be a lonely spin up through the waters at least a couple hundred miles northeast of the island chain. The Hurricane Hunters doubt there is any longer much threat from the system. The plane banks, finds smooth air and heads for Hickam Air base. Exhausted crew stretch out on seats to nap.
This time, the roller coaster ride — dreaded or longed for — does not come.
Email Bret Yager firstname.lastname@example.org.