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NOAA Hurricane Hunters Have New Home In Lakeland

After more than two decades, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Hunter planes have a new home. Construction crews are scrambling to get it ready for this week's start of hurricane season.

The blaring sounds of power tools echo across the 100,000 square foot Aircraft Operations Center at Lakeland Linder Airport, and there's that distinct smell of wet paint in the air. 

Dozens of construction workers are frantically trying to finish what is essentially a brand new building, one they have only had about six months to complete. Walls are still missing in some areas and floors are still sticky with glue.

“If it seems a little chaotic, it's because it’s a little chaotic," said Captain Michael Silah, NOAA’s Commanding Officer of Aircraft Operations.

He has been in charge of the move ever since MacDill Air Force Base announced last year that it no longer had space - after hosting the program for two decades. The move to Lakeland Linder is estimated to cost $17.5 million, and Silah says the project is moving at an unusually fast speed for government.

But despite the frenzy, he says the center hasn't lost sight of its top priority: making sure its 110 staff members, all of whom are moving over to Lakeland, are ready for hurricane season that starts every year on June 1.

"We prepare every year to be ready for the entire season, and this year is no different,” Silah said. “That's what makes this place special, and so the mission impact will be zero."

So even if offices and conference rooms aren't quite 100 percent, the Hurricane Hunter planes will have a roof over their heads – a big one at that.

The massive 58,000 square foot hangar, slightly larger than the one used at MacDill, can easily fit all nine of the Aircraft Operation Center's aircraft at once, including the three used by the Hurricane Hunters.

While many Floridians may know about the Hurricane Hunters, Silah explained that there are three primary missions:

  • Hurricane research aims to improve forecasts for future storms.
  • Surveillance involves flying around a storm to get a feel for where it's heading.
  • And the job they are most famous for – reconaissance – where aircrews and scientists fly right into the eye of a hurricane to collect weather data.

Silah is a 15-year veteran Hurricane Hunter and said flying into the storm is an experience like no other.
“You know it's a little bit different every time which makes it fun,” he said. “It's bumpy and violent at times, and that can be some of the more challenging times, but more importantly you're contributing in some way to an effort that really matters, you know, that impacts people's lives.”

The Hurricane Hunter fleet consists of two P-3 Orion turboprop planes and a Gulfstream IV jet. Sound too technical? Might be easier to remember their nicknames, after the Muppets characters Kermit, Miss Piggy and Gonzo.

“It kind of started with a bit of name calling between the crews that are attached to one airplane or the other and grew from there,” Silah said. “But the important thing about that is it helps us reach people."

And reaching people is exactly what NOAA's hoping to do at their new home in Lakeland.

“We hope we're going to have a pretty good partnership with some of the local colleges and universities, because I know they're doing things with robotics, for example, that we could learn from” Silah said. “And so our intention is to bring some of their expertise over and hopefully start growing the next generation of employees, which I think will be from Lakeland.”

Some other signs NOAA is looking toward the future include a drone shop at the new site, a space it didn't have at MacDill, and some advanced technology. The center recently upgraded one of its Doppler radar systems to a dual-Doppler.

“As been explained to me, there used to be one spinny thing and now there's two, and they spin twice as fast,” Silah joked.

But in all seriousness, he said, “Doppler radars are absolutely critical for weather forecasting and weather research,” Silah said. “The resolutions that can be gathered with [dual-Doppler] radar are significant. We just finished deploying that for the first time to do tornado research and we'll apply that same sensor for this year's hurricane season, hopefully with similar results.”

Silah said some perks of operating at MacDill will be missed, like its top-notch Air Force security. But he says he's ready for the center to move on to a place all 110 employees can call their home.

“No one works the way we work,” Silah said. “We know ourselves best, we know what we do and how we do it, and this space will reflect that because we designed it.”

Silah expects the full transition to wrap up later this summer. 

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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