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In The Eye Of Hurricane Dorian

Sep 5, 2019

Most Floridians are breathing easier now that Hurricane Dorian has moved away from the state and up the coast. But the work is not done for NOAA's Hurricane Hunters in Lakeland.

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It was a bumpy ride as the plane made its way into Dorian during a flight Wednesday evening. The windows were opaque white from the clouds, then flooded with rain.

But soon after the pilot announced over the radio, “We should be coming into the eye,” the scenery changed dramatically.

Bright blue skies and a glimmering sun in the eye made it hard to believe this was the sight of something that has wreaked so much havoc on land.

The blue skies and glistening sun made it hard to believe this was the center of a dangerous storm.
Credit Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media

This was the 14th time this particular plane, a P-3 Orion nicknamed “Kermit,” flew into Dorian since it first became a threat in the Caribbean.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Gulfstream-IV jet known as “Gonzo” has also made numerous trips to track the storm. Together, the two aircraft have made nearly 20 trips into Dorian's path.

“This is ridiculous, this is almost as many as I’ve ever seen,” flight director Jack Parrish said.

Flight director Jack Parrish works on NOAA's P-3 Orion Hurricane Hunter aircraft, nicknamed "Kermit."
Credit Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media

Parrish has been flying into hurricanes since 1980 and cited hurricanes Ivan and Irma as other rare examples of NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters flying into one storm for such a long stretch of time.

Dorian’s change in track and slow speed are much to blame.

When WUSF last spoke with NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Friday, they had expected to stop flying over Labor Day weekend when the storm was projected to make landfall on Florida’s east coast. Now they will fly at least through Thursday.

"The concern with this one is that if we fly it for so long that something else is brewing that's going to require our immediate attention without recovery in between," explained the flight’s data administrator Mike Mascaro.

Data administrator Mike Mascaro in his "office" aboard one of NOAA's P-3 Orion planes.
Credit STEPHANIE COLOMBINI / WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

NOAA did send a Hurricane Hunter aircraft into Tropical Storm Fernand in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this week but that made landfall quickly.

Mascaro explained the agency has strict protocols about ensuring crew members get rest and aircraft get examined and repaired in between each trip to collect weather data.

Each trip can be very demanding for flight crews. They usually last anywhere from six to 10 hours and involve frequent turbulence and constant communication between pilots, scientists and technicians.

On Wednesday night’s trip, the plane flew from NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland well east over the Atlantic Ocean and as far north as the South Carolina border, passing through Dorian’s eyewall in a sort of butterfly pattern a few times before returning a couple more times so researchers on board could gather more data.

One of the main ways NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters help forecasters track storms is by releasing what are known as dropsondes out of the plane. These small, tube-shaped instruments continuously transmit weather information like wind speed and pressure, which helps meteorologists determine a storm’s strength and direction.

Science technician Mac McAlister holds up a "BT," a forecasting tool that looks at water temperatures.
Credit STEPHANIE COLOMBINI / WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Larger tubes referred to as “BT’s” were also deployed on this flight to study ocean temperatures during the hurricane.

While the limited time off has been a strain on the team, science technician Michael "Mac" McAlister said their ultimate concern is the people on the ground.

"Whether it’s this storm or the next one, this is what we do, but it's frustrating just to know that everyone across the eastern seaboard has been held in limbo by this storm so much, you know, prayers go out to people in the Bahamas and what it has caused there, what it could have done to Florida," he said.

Flight director Jack Parrish said he’s proud of the work his team has done over the past couple weeks.

"We know we were in the air when we needed to be to get the warning to the people in the Bahamas, to get the appropriate warning to the people in the States as it (Dorian) started to make its turn to the north,” he said.

While much of the data collected during Hurricane Hunter flights is used to track current storms in real-time, information gathered on Dorian missions can also help improve forecasts of future storms.