NOAA Researchers Explain What It's Like To Fly Into A Hurricane

In the eye of the storm

Flying Into Katrina

Flying Into Katrina

The eyewall of Katrina, as seen from the air. The eyewall of a hurricane is an area just around the eye, or center of a hurricane, and is usually associated with dangerously high winds.Lieutenant Mike Silah, NOAA Corps, NOAA AOC

Many people have lived through hurricanes, but very few have flown into them on purpose. On a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) today, Frank Marks, the head of NOAA's Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project and Commander Justin Kibbey, a NOAA pilot, took questions about what it's like to fly into hurricanes to gather data crucial to helping forecasters predict a storm's movement.

With UAVs of all kinds, from former war drones to disposable drones increasingly being used to study hurricanes, one of the first questions that the pair took was about the relevance of their jobs in an era of increasing automation.

Reddit user ppcpilot asked: "With the growth of unmanned aerial vehicles, do you see the flying part of your job replaced by these vehicles? Surely it would be much safer and cheaper to have the researchers do their jobs from the ground?"

Kibbey: Very good question. Over the last 2 years we have been testing a Coyote UAV in the hurricane environment. The first successful flight of the Coyote was in 2014 in Hurricane Edouard. Currently the Coyote is used to augment the data provided by the WP-3D, as it can fly in the lower levels of the hurricanes and investigate areas that may be too dangerous for the WP-3D aircraft to fly in. The WP-3D’s are really more like flying laboratories, with the ability to test and carry multiple instruments and sensors. In the near future, I don’t see UAV’s being able to take over the duties of the manned aircraft, but they will serve as a very valuable research tool.

Reddit user basic_bruja asks: "Dr. Marks- have tropical cyclones changed much since you started flying into them in the 80s- and if so, how? What kinds of implications do any changes in cyclone behavior over time have for the next 50 years (or beyond)?"

Marks: As far as I can tell the hurricanes have not changed much. What has changed a lot is our ability to make observations in the storm and to get the all of that data directly to the hurricane center in real time. When I started flying only information from the aircraft instruments were transmitted in real time. Now we send dropwindsondes, Doppler radar data, radar imagery, and surface wind estimates. You can see pictures of some of these from our flights into Hermine on our website photo gallery: http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/outreach/photogallery/ . We send these observations over SATCOM directly to the hurricane center and the NWS model center to be used in models to improve the forecast guidance."

Then of course there's the fact that the Kibbey and Marks have easily one of the more awesome jobs in the world, and many kids want to grow up to be like them. Reddit user njb42 asked: "My son is in second grade and loves reading about weather. He would like to know: what is the biggest storm you've ever flown into?"

Marks: This is a tough question because as storms evolve they change their intensity and their size. I would have to say Hurricane Ike in 2008 was the largest in size as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico heading toward Texas. It was almost 800 miles across and it had hurricane winds extending out to 100 miles from the center. As it approached Texas the hurricane winds shrunk to about 40 miles from the center as it intensified to a major hurricane. However, it was such a large storm it generated a major storm surge along the coast of Louisiana 100’s of miles from the landfall point. In terms of intensity then Hugo in 1989 was the storm with the strongest wind I have flown into.

But the most important question of all came from Reddit user PoudreValley who wanted to know: "On a weekly basis, how many times do you listen to the song "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the Scorpions."

Marks and Kibbey: "Riders in the storm" by The Doors is our preference.