Meet the Hurricane Hunters — the pilots and scientists who fly into hurricanes like Dorian to gather data for forecasters

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  • Much of the data that helps forecasters predict the path, strength, and timing of tropical storms and hurricanes come from a small fleet of aeroplanes that fly around, through, and above the storms.
  • The Hurricane Hunters – a team within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sometimes assisted by a team from the US Air Force Reserves – fly right into the storms, slicing, diving, and weaving through “howling winds, blinding rain and violent updrafts and downdrafts” to gather information.
  • The gruelling missions can take 8-10 hours, but the forecasts they have enabled have saved lives, helping people evacuate or seek shelter sooner.
  • Read on to learn more about the Hurricane Hunters and their incredible planes.
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Meteorologists announced on Thursday that Hurricane Dorian was likely to strengthen to a Category 4 storm by the time it makes landfall along the Florida coast early Monday morning.

As the storm continued to churn through the Caribbean on Thursday, where it remained a Category 1 storm for the time being, Floridians began to prepare for what was predicted to be one of the more severe hurricanes to hit the state in recent years.

The National Hurricane Centre warned that Dorian’s heavy rains could cause “life-threatening flash floods,” power outages, and winds of more than 130 miles per hour.

Much of the information and knowledge that helps forecasters guess the path, strength, and timing of the storm comes from a small fleet of aeroplanes – operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Air Force Reserves – that flies directly into the heart of the most severe storms to gather accurate data on its conditions.

These elite “Hurricane Hunters” can spend 8-10 hours at a time gathering data, which contributes to life-saving forecasts that help those in harm’s way evacuate or seek shelter while skies are still clear and sunny.

Scroll down to learn more about the Hurricane Hunters.


Meet “Miss Piggy,” one of NOAA’s two Lockheed WP-3D Orion “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft.

Reuters

The other is named “Kermit.”

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

The two P-3 Orion aircraft — with their four turboprop engines and sturdy airframes — are used by NOAA to collect data from within hurricanes and tropical storm systems.

Molly Riley/Reuters

The three turboprops are equipped with specialised probes, sensors, and radars to detect minute details about wind direction and speed, pressure, humidity, temperature, and more.

Rhona Wise/Stringer/Getty

There are also Doppler radar systems in the P-3’s tail and lower fuselage to scan the storm vertically and horizontally.

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Pilots fly right into the storms, slicing, diving, and weaving through “howling winds, blinding rain and violent updrafts and downdrafts before entering the relative calm of the storm’s eye,” according to NOAA.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

In addition to the pilots, the Hurricane Hunters are staffed by crews of scientists who deploy the various instruments and measure readings.

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Working on the planes can be gruelling, with many missions lasting 8-10 hours.

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It’s enough to give even the most seasoned frequent flyer motion sickness.

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Over their many missions, the Hurricane Hunters have helped scientists better understand how hurricanes form and work, allowing them to better predict storms and deadly storm surges.

Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty

Along with general research missions, the NOAA P-3s — along with a WC-130J, operated by the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, perform storm reconnaissance missions, flying into active systems that pose a threat to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Rhona Wise/Stringer/Getty

Those reconnaissance missions are “primarily to locate the centre of the storm and measure central pressure and surface winds around the eye.”

Molly Riley/Reuters

Even when there aren’t any active tropical storm systems, the Hurricane Hunters stay active, carrying out various research missions across the globe. In recent years, Miss Piggy and Kermit have been used in “major studies on storms approaching the continents of Europe and North America to improve forecasts and study the effects of El Niño, atmospheric gases and aerosols over the North Atlantic, large-scale convective storm complexes in the Midwest, and winter storms battering U.S. Pacific coastal states.”

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NOAA also has a third plane in the Hurricane Hunter fleet: a Gulfstream IV-SP jet nicknamed “Gonzo.”

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Gonzo is the only jet-powered plane in the Hurricane Hunter fleet.

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The G-IV is used to fly “high, fast, and far” above and around a storm. It has a 4,000 nautical mile range and a maximum cruising altitude of 45,000 feet.

NOAA/Facebook

It collects high-altitude data that helps forecasters map steering air currents that direct the movement of hurricanes, helping meteorologists predict a storm’s path …

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… As the P3 Orions fly through it …

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…Making them an ideal team to gather data on the dangerous storms.

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