Inside the deadly heart of 1964’s Hurricane Cleo
In 1964, a crew of intrepid hurricane hunters flew into one of the worst storms in history
In 1964, Popular Science reporter E.D. Fales Jr. wrote this feature story about the crew of Snowcloud One going into the eye of Cleo, only to find it was not calm but filled with 125 mph winds.
The Ordeal Of Snowcloud One
Cleo was a hurricane with a difference, they discovered, as they probed for its calm eye—and found only 125-m.p.h. winds
WHEN hurricane hunter Snowcloud One took off last August from Guantanamo Bay airfield she looked too frail and slender for the ordeal ahead: a flight into the eye of one of the most vicious tropical storms in recent years—Hurricane Cleo.
The time was 8:50 a.m. Later reports placed the storm about 600 miles east of Cuba. Snowcloud One’s orders were to find it, measure its power, and determine which way it was heading.
The second pilot, Lt. (j.g.) Desmond Phelan, got the Super Constellation quickly airborne, headed east, and flew low across the Windward Passage.
The 12-year-old ship flew as Navy storm hunters do, at “wave-top altitude,” 500 to 1,000 feet—rough going on a long flight. Balanced far out on her wings were big outboard tip tanks, each carrying 600 gallons (nearly two tons) of gasoline.
A little more than two hours after takeoff, Snowcloud One sighted the storm, a great black blur. Her three meteorologists at once began sizing it up on radar. They found it a gigantic whirlwind 100 miles wide, with clouds nine miles high.
They radioed a warning to weathermen in Miami that this was an exceptionally bad storm. Within an hour cities on the East Coast began buttoning up for disaster action (which later saved many lives).
AT THE same time the plane began to hit squalls. The wings—with those big tanks—began to flex up and down. Plane Commander Walter Reese walked back through the fuselage, hot and crowded with instruments and machines. At the Combat Information Center, or CIC deck, he peered into radar for his first good look at the enemy.
The storm sprawled on the radar screens like a pulsing green octopus. From its southwest quadrant, which they were now approaching, hung an ominous “hook cloud” 50 miles long. Radar echoes showed it to be loaded with torrents of solid water.
Beyond the hook lay the dark hole of the eye—the calm center of this spiral of violence. It was into the eye itself that Reese planned to fly to obtain measurements of its heat, humidity, and cloud height. While the eye is usually calm, the worst winds revolve around it in a dense wall called the “wall cloud.”
Commander Reese, a tall, spare man, checked another radar. This one was focused on that odd-looking hook.
“Pretty solid stuff,” warned CIC Officer Ron Walker. Reese nodded. Nevertheless, the radar signals sent out from the plane (and bounced back by the clouds) showed a safe passage north of the hook.
Reese returned to the cockpit and spoke by intercom to his crew: “Put on Mae Wests and strap yourselves into your ditching stations.”
Reese circled the storm to lighten Snowcloud One before heading into battle.
When the plane’s weight was down to safe limits, Reese told CIC: “Give me a course and con us in.”
THE four radarmen in CIC now became the plane’s eyes. Lt. (j.g.) Walker began a running conversation with the cockpit, telling Reese how to steer around the fury in the hook cloud.
As the wind rose, Metro (meteorologist) Chief Frank Morgan kept calling:
“Wind 64 knots … 70 … 90 … 110 knots [about 125 m.p.h.].”
At 12:45 p.m. came the first real test. Whirling just ahead, five miles high and 25 miles thick, was the deadly wall cloud.
The plane lurched through the cloud and came to an area where radar had shown the eye. But as they left the wall behind, pilots and crew stared in astonishment: This storm had no calm eye. It should have been a big, cloud-domed room about 15 miles across in which the plane could circle while metereologists took the pulse of the storm. But this eye was a socket full of fury—with wild racing clouds and great winds.
Reese and his copilot, Lt. Cmdr. Don Edgren, tried several turns—futilely. This was the bleary eye of a hurricane gone mad. There was no room to turn without hitting, again and again, the solid violence of the wall cloud.
Reese decided to get the plane out—fast. He managed one last tight turn. Then he called CIC: “Give me an immediate exit course. We’re getting out.”
CIC, checking radar, replied that the best route lay roughly south-southeast, at a compass heading of 150 degrees. Commander Edgren said to Reese, “It’s my turn to make the exit—remember?”
Reese replied, “She’s all yours. Take her out.”
At 1:01 p.m., Edgren braced his feet on the rudder pedals and took a firm grip on the yoke. He brought the plane around until it was headed directly for the wall. Immediately the plane was buffeted by 125-m.p.h. winds hitting its right wing. It began to buck.
As the wall cloud swallowed the plane, the sea disappeared. Edgren concentrated on his altimeter, and turn-and-bank and rate-of-climb indicators.
TWO minutes later the sky went black. Edgren heard Reese asking CIC to check radar. A heavy jolt shook the plane. Instantly the reply came:
“Radar is off the line. We’ve lost our signal.”
When she needed them most, Snowcloud One had lost her eyes and was blind.
The horror was just beginning. There was only one thing to do: hold the 150-degree heading.
More hard bounces shook the wings. At 1:04 p.m., there was a great updraft as though the aircraft had flown over an explosion.
When the shock came, the men were pinned down by G forces. One found himself lying on the deck grabbing a chair. He tried in vain to force himself up. The extraordinary upward acceleration continued.
Phelan, strapped in behind the cockpit, found himself watching the left wing. It was flexing hard. The engines were blowing blue fire, straining. As he watched, the left tip tank swung wild like a big cigar. He shouted, “Left tip tank is going.”
The tank tore loose, dangled momentarily from broken fastenings and pipes, then vanished, leaving the outer end of the wing torn and spurting gasoline.
The plane banked sharply toward the other wing, now weighed down heavily by the remaining tank.
The Lockheed manual says a Constellation’s wings must never be more than 300 pounds out of balance. Snowcloud One now had an incredible imbalance of nearly two tons: the weight of the right tank.
AS THE right wing dipped, almost pulling the plane over on its side,Reese and Edgren fought the controls. They got the wing up slightly. Reese shouted to Flight Engineer Vic Workman for “max” power. For a brief moment the four engines roared as Workman increased r.p.m. and pushed his throttle forward.
The engines went from 2,600 r.p.m. to 2,900 r.p.m.—then suddenly, crazily, dropped to 2,000. With a surge and a howl, engines No. 1, 2, and 3 returned to 2,900. The unnerving sound reminded Reese of a race car revving up in a series of prestart bursts. Soon, No. 4 joined the howling and wandering.
All engines now began changing speed. Were G forces upsetting the governor flyweights? Or were the propellers cavitating in thin air as motorboat propellers do in waterless pockets?
And what had Snowcloud One hit? A tornado, or its deadly cousin, a waterspout, hidden within the hurricane? Whatever it was, the plane was only minutes from destruction.
Reese now prepared to dump fuel to gain stability and lighten the right wing. His chance never came. At 1:10 p.m., a new and greater jolt shook the plane, followed by a wild plunge. In the cockpit Reese’s phones were ripped off his head. In the engineer’s control panel, there was a loud crash. Two radios had torn out of their racks. Far back in the rear of Snowcloud One, Metro Chief Frank Morgan, though strapped in, was hurled off his seat and lay groaning on the deck.
BACK in the galley, a pile of paper napkins rose six feet and stayed there, hovering. A 100-pound toolbox broke its nylon lashings and hung in midair. Navigator Eston Raymond saw his precious charts snatched upward and away. A half-dollar rose from his pocket and hung in midair. Angrily, he snatched it back.
A flashlight was ripped from Phelan’s hand and flew to the ceiling. He never saw it again. Back on the CIC deck, radarman John Lewis, his seat belt broken, found himself pinned to the ceiling. He couldn’t get down. Other men floated up there with him, among the parachutes.
Technician Jim Kieffer grabbed a table to hold himself down. The table cut off the end of a finger above the small knuckle as he went to the ceiling. Above all the confusion, Lewis heard him shout gamely: “They’ll never make a yeoman of me now.”
Suddenly, the men on the ceiling found themselves hurled to the deck. Lewis came down hard on meteorologist Norman Putrite. Lewis heard him cry,”Where’s my arm?” Lewis looked and said, “You’re lying on it. It’s broken.”
The plane began to come apart. The second tip tank tore off. Two metal panels were ripped off the wings. The plane’s great radome, hung underneath, split from top to bottom. Inside, a fire axe tore loose and began chopping holes in the deck.
The rain at this time was indescribable. Reese, looking back, saw a torrent of water flooding his engines—but they still ran. Second Flight Engineer Marshall Jones, fighting forward to help Chief Workman, found all engines literally water-cooled.
“Yet we couldn’t close the cowls to warm them,” Reese says. “The water began to collect in them; we had to keep them blown out.”
As soon as he could, Engineer Jones fought his way aft and found Metro Chief Morgan bruised and bleeding.
“The Chief’s badly hurt,” he told Lewis. Lewis, his own hand torn, pointed to the man with the broken arm. “When we ditch,” he said, “you take the Chief with you and I’ll take Putrite.”
The plane hit a series of bumps. The injured Chief Morgan cast a glance at his altimeter.
“This is it,” he said. “This thing reads zero altitude.”
“Yes,” said another man. “We’ve hit the ocean at last.”
Snowcloud One went on bouncing, more submarine than airplane. They could hear water on wings and roof.
Ships and planes in many parts of the Atlantic heard Snowcloud One’s faint cry: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We are in urgent need of assistance.”
SHIPS and tracking stations began a radio search. Within four minutes, Squadron Commander Dan Chesler, back at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, Snowcloud One’s home base, knew the plane’s exact position.
But who could help in a hurricane? Two U. S. Weather Bureau research planes in the area began hunting. Meanwhile, from Puerto Rico, 150 miles to the north on the other side of the storm, a brave little Coast Guard Albatross amphibian took off. Although no storm fighter, it hoped somehow to lend aid.
Meanwhile, Snowcloud One was, by some miracle, still flying. It bounced along like a crippled duck, now hurled high by wind gusts, now pinned close to the water. Its engines still howled weirdly.
Reese made a discovery. The vast expanse of storm now lay between him and his home base. He headed west, hoping to outrun the storm, circle it, and, if necessary, ditch near Puerto Rico.
He found that loss of the second tip tank had helped. Though the plane still threatened to come apart, some of its imbalance was gone. It still crabbed along sidewise, however, because the second tank had taken a much bigger chunk of the right wing with it.
Reese heard the Coast Guard Albatross calling: “We now have you in sight on radar.” By incredibly good work the Albatross had intercepted the distressed aircraft and had swung in close behind.
“Thanks,” Reese said, and went back to see his crew while Phelan relieved the arm-weary Edgren at the controls. Phelan found her “awfully shaky.” He had to fly her “at 170 knots, no more no less.”
Low over the sea, Phelan dodged under the edge of the storm. An hour later he saw storm-stressed trees just below: the rain forests of Puerto Rico. But the sight was small comfort: There was little reason to think the gear would come down or the plane hold together for a landing.
RUSHING into action at Roosevelt Roads, a ground-control-approach crew spotted her on radar, and began to coax her down. Reese, back at the controls, risked slowing her to 122 knots, the landing speed, then found it was too slow. He’d have to go in faster or lose her in those forests.
In the cockpit, Engineer Workman called off the before-landing check list:
Workman: “Autopilot off?” Reese: “Autopilot off.” Workman: “R.p.m. set at 2,400?” Reese: “R.p.m. will remain at 2,600.” Workman: “Fuel tanks?” Reese: “Set on emergency.” Workman: “Landing flaps down?”
Reese made a quick calculation. He now knew that the hydraulic control system had been damaged. If he tried to drop the flaps there was danger that only one might come down, and this could be disastrous.
“Flaps,” he said, “will remain up.”
This meant he’d have no chance to let the crippled plane settle gently. He’d have to fly her in, fast and flat.
SHE burst out of the clouds, dragging low, gasoline streaming from her bro-ken wings. The plucky little Albatross was right behind her, sticking with her to the end. In the last minute, Snowcloud One bucked slightly.
The fire trucks were after her even before she hit. In the plane, Second Pilot Phelan heard the tires thud. He waited for the swerve, the warning she would not make it. No swerve. The landing gear held.
She was trembling as she ran off her speed. Men were waving her toward the middle of the airfield; her gas might flare.
Reese cut the engines. For a moment the crew sat dazed, while ambulances raced up for her injured. In the cabin a weary voice broke the silence:
“Well,” it said, “we made it again.”