The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations has been busy lately, keeping an eye on hurricanes Harvey and Irma in a devastating early 2017 season.
NOAA operates three aircraft that it uses to study and predict the patterns and severity of hurricanes while they’re still far from land.
The planes have different jobs — and represent completely different types of technology, from different eras.
NOAA has a pair of WP-3D Orions obtained brand new from Lockheed in ... the mid-1970s. They were recently overhauled to extend their operational lives.
Powered by four Allison T56-14 Turboprop engines, each cranking out 4,600 horsepower, the Orions are the rough-and-tumble planes that get down-and-dirty with the biggest storms. They fly into a hurricane ferocious winds and endure insane turbulence to penetrate to the eye of the storm.
They can climb to only 27,000 feet. But they have gotten around over the past 40 years.
'With their world-wide operating capability, these proven, robust aircraft and their crews have participated in numerous research experiments worldwide,' NOAA says on its website.
'On a national scope, they have operated from the Arctic Ocean and Alaska through most regions of the U.S. and into the Caribbean. The aircraft, nicknamed 'Kermit' (N42RF) and 'Miss Piggy' (N43RF) have supported hurricane and tropical storm research in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific.'
The aircraft cost $US36 million new in 1987, so NOAA probably got theirs for a bit less.
Wondering how these old-school planes can laugh in the face of nature's fury? NOAA explains:
Planes are generally not destroyed by strong winds while in flight. Airliners routinely fly in jet streams with winds exceeding 150 mph over the U.S. during the winter. It's the shear, or sudden change in horizontal or vertical winds, that can destroy an aircraft, or cause its loss of control. That's why NOAA's Hurricane Hunter aircraft don't fly through tornadoes. In a like manner, NOAA pilots and crew routinely (but never casually) fly in the high-wind environment of the hurricane and don't fear it tearing the plane apart. However, they are always monitoring for 'hot spots' of severe weather and shear that they can often identify on radar and avoid if it's too severe.
Like the Orions, the Gulfstream IV operates out of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport near Tampa. The G-IV has been superseded by some snazzier jets in the Gulfstream fleet, but it's still a hot rod of the skies.
'With a range of nearly 4,000 nautical miles and a cruising altitude of 45,000 feet, this aircraft provides observational coverage at high altitudes critical for defining weather systems in the upper atmosphere,' NOAA says.
The dual Rolls Royce Tay 611-8 twin-spool turbofans deliver a top speed of Mach 0.88. The G-IV's nickname is 'Gonzo,' and its weapon of choice is called a 'GPS dropwindsonde,' according to NOAA.
'The dropsonde is released from the G-IV, measuring and transmitting back to the aircraft the pressure, temperature, humidity and GPS ... frequency shifts as it descends to earth. The ... shifts are used to compute the horizontal and vertical wind components.'
In other words, the G-IV can fly high above a hurricane and create a macro picture of its power.