Flying Through the Eye of the Storm: NOAA Hurricane Hunters

Date Posted: May 17, 2016


Commander Price and the WP-3D Orion aircraft. Each Hurricane Hunter team includes: Pilots, Flight Engineers to monitor aircraft systems, a Navigator to determine route guidance and track storm movement, a Flight Director to run the science mission, a data system operator to ensure the various mission systems are talking to each other, and a sonobuoy and dropsonde operator who deploys sensors into the storm, among others.” To excel at being on the Hurricane Hunter crew, you need dedication to our mission, must be a team player, and hold yourself to the highest personal standards.

Most pilots try to avoid flying an airplane into severe weather, but not the NOAA Hurricane Hunters. Their job is to fly specially equipped aircraft directly into the eye of the storm to collect crucial data that helps protects lives and property. Commander Scott Price, a NOAA Commissioned Corps Officer, is one of this rare breed.

Price, the son of a pilot, did not dream of walking in his Dad’s footsteps. It wasn’t until he neared college graduation on a Navy ROTC scholarship that aviation reappeared on his radar. Following his naval commission, he attended Navy flight school. Price explains, “being a pilot in the front seat of an airplane was a whole lot more fun than being bounced around in the back of one as a kid.” While serving as a Navy pilot, flying missions from South America to Afghanistan, he learned about the NOAA Corps and its hurricane research and reconnaissance missions. “The idea of it was both fascinating and outside my comfort zone, but the caliber of people and the quality individuals I knew I’d work alongside at NOAA sealed the deal.”

Price flies a WP-3D Orion, one of two different types of planes that the Hurricane Hunters use. Training is crucial. Most storm-specific training is done on-the-job. “It’s impossible to accurately simulate a hurricane eyewall penetration – doing it in the aircraft in a storm is the only way to experience the responsiveness of the plane, flight characteristics, crew coordination, and visceral response brought on by plowing through a wall of wind and rain while you’re at the controls,” explained Price. The training of a commercial pilot and Hurricane Hunter diverge sharply. The commercial aviation world trains its pilots to avoid inclement weather, while NOAA Hurricane Hunter pilots are trained to fly through the worst storms on earth, over and over again.

gulfstream
Gulfstream IV-SP (front) and WP-3D Orion

The flight crew for a Hurricane Hunter is normally given 48 hours of notice for a flight. It takes a significant amount of preparation to deploy a full crew to a variety of international locations. Crew work and sleep schedules often need to be adjusted to ensure each member is adequately rested for the launch. On the day of the flight, a normal pre-flight check starts 2–3 hours before takeoff. The pilots, Flight Director and Navigator conduct a mission brief with science team personnel to review the planned route, mission profile, data collection objectives, current and forecast storm development, expected hazards (e.g., convection, icing, salt accretion); weather for takeoff, landing and the en-route portion, etc.

Successful hurricane missions are outstanding examples of teamwork. Crew members are by no means fearless. Price spoke of the healthy anxiety he feels before a storm flight, “No matter how often we fly into these systems, the natural inclination of the pilot in me to avoid inclement weather will never go away entirely, and ultimately helps foster my immense respect for every storm we approach. Watching the target cyclone churn on the radar loop during the mission brief usually sparks that anxiety and also helps ground my mental preparation for the flight ahead. And though we go into each storm armed with the best available information about the conditions we should encounter, the dynamic nature of the environment means the only sure things about your trip through are the bumps behind you.”

As the Aircraft Commander, Price ensures the entry and exit plans are set, crew members are briefed and understand their specific duties, and the aircraft is ready to fly through an environment nearly every other plane in the world will never encounter. During the most dynamic portion of the flight, Price is in constant communication with the Flight Director, who provides real-time flight guidance based on the radar picture. He also continuously communicates with his co-pilot and Flight Engineer the aircraft’s airspeed, attitude, track and altitude. Price states, “Regardless of how I’m feeling or what’s happening in the environment around us, remaining balanced and in control (or at least appearing that way) can be just as important as following the procedures we’re trained to execute.” A typical hurricane mission lasts about 8 hours, which allows for a 4-hour turnaround before a follow-on mission in the same storm by a second crew. It’s not unusual to fly six days in a row on a slow moving storm.

miss piggy
Fun fact! Gonzo, Kermit and Miss Piggy are on the sides of a few of the planes.

One of the most memorable moments Price experienced was his first P-3 mission as a NOAA pilot. In September 2008, Tropical Storm Kyle churned off the U.S. East coast, and Price was assigned the first 2 am takeoff. He describes the experience: “As we approached the middle of the storm in the pitch black of morning, lightning momentarily lit up the sky and silhouetted the massive clouds we were getting ready to fly through, which would then vanish in the darkness just as quickly as they appeared. It was right after one of these flashes that I had the proverbial ‘How in the world did I get here?’ moment.”

Also memorable was Hurricane Patricia in 2015, the most intimidating storm he has flown. Hurricane Patricia was a rapidly intensifying Category V hurricane, and ultimately the strongest hurricane on record. Over the course of three missions they found a radically different storm each time they flew out to it. “Our relatively junior team overcome several challenges to safely get in and out of a storm of that caliber. It was one of the most rewarding moments in my NOAA career.”

The job of a NOAA Hurricane Hunter pilot impacts the day to day lives of ordinary people. The best information about a storm is still found within the storm itself. This information dictates whether people evacuate and businesses shutter, and can ultimately save lives and millions of dollars in property.