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

NOAA/FacebookMuch of the information that helps forecasters guess the path, strength, and timing of major hurricanes comes from planes that fly into the heart of the most severe storms to gather data.
  • 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.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As Hurricane Laura churned through the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, residents along the Texas and Louisiana coasts prepared for what was predicted to be one of the more severe storms to hit the state in years.

The National Hurricane Centre warned that Laura, forecasted to make landfall as a Category 4 storm late Wednesday night into early Thursday morning, could bring heavy rains that would create an “unsurvivable” storm surge along the coast.

Much of the information and knowledge that helps forecasters guess the path, strength, and timing of storms like Laura comes from a small fleet of aeroplanes, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Air Force Reserves, that fly directly into the most severe storms to gather data.

These elite “Hurricane Hunters” can spend 8 to 10 hours at a time flying through storms, 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.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

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.

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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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