How Aviation Helps Us to Prepare For the “Big One”

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A week-long travelling road show (well, actually a travelling air show) began a five-state presentation at Rhode Island’s Quonset State Airport on May 6th, 2019. The event took a multi-faceted approach to hurricane preparedness; it offered education on the subject to and from local emergency management officials, as well as giving around five hundred local students in Grades 4, 5 and 6 an introductory look at the art and science of hurricane forecasting.

Plus, a pair of Hurricane Hunter aircraft were on hand for tours and for the chance to talk with actual crew members about the “hows and whys” of flying into a hurricane!

The yearly Hurricane Preparedness Tour has stopped in Quonset, Rhode Island before, and in the nearby Cape Cod region of Massachusetts too. This presentation attracted emergency management officials not only from Rhode Island, but from southern New England as well. Federal, state and national organizations were well represented; officials from agencies and organizations like FLASH (Federal Alliance for Safe Homes), FEMA (Federal Emergence Management Agency), American Red Cross, Southern New England SKYWARN, the National Hurricane Center – whose director Kenneth Graham was on hand – and the National Weather Service’s Boston Office (now located in Norton MA) all had representatives speak about and/or present written information about the hazards of tropical storms and mitigation strategies. Television stations from all three states broadcast live news segments from the event at various times throughout the day.

A lot of emphasis about storm hazards was placed on localities close to the Atlantic Ocean and those near rivers which can flood catastrophically, tending to be close to sea level. Sobering numbers told of the hazards of water – flooding and storm surge (not winds) account for close to 90% of all storm related fatalities. Most fatalities occur during a Category 1 storm, or even lower… drownings from flooding is the culprit again.

While the presentations during the day had many powerful messages to offer, the two aircraft on the Quonset Airport ramp spoke volumes too. Their crews spoke about their duties, and how they and their aircraft act as tools for meteorologists and scientists who work to pinpoint the landfall of storms, and where the most impact will be felt. It costs local and federal governments upwards of $1 million dollars for each mile of shoreline evacuated in a storm’s path. As you can guess, narrowing down the area where a tropical storm or hurricane will make landfall can save millions of dollars in emergency aid that could be used better in the aftermath of a storm.

While the two aircraft on hand have overlapping capabilities, they really do have different missions during a tropical storm or hurricane. The Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS) is the sole unit tasked with the actual hurricane reconnaissance mission within the entire U. S. Air Force (real time information). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates three specialized aircraft to help scientists study a multitude of scientific avenues for understanding hurricanes and other weather phenomena, and for forecasting the near future (up to a few days out).

The WC-130J Hercules that the 53rd WRS operates is a stock military C-130 transport, only the weather radar in the nose has been tweaked for a finer presentation of the weather conditions ahead of the aircraft. Tornadic activity occurs more frequently in thunderstorms closest to the eye of the storm. It is not beefed up with a stronger structure to withstand severe conditions, rather the crew member who is the weather coordinator works with the pilots and navigator to avoid the most serious weather conditions that could be encountered using the on-board radar. It operates as a sort of low-altitude weather satellite, filling in weather data that’s not available in some areas due to a weather satellite’s position, and other times it collects more detailed information as to winds, humidity and storm track that satellites can’t collect.

Other interesting facts about this Hurricane Hunter are:
The WC-130 is staffed with a navigator while other Air Force C-130Js have done away with this position. Due to its mission, the aircraft operates in Oceanic airspace a lot, and this helps the pilot and copilot focus solely on flying the plane, rather than sharing navigation duties as is the case in other C-130Js.

The Herc will penetrate an eye wall (closest weather to the eye of the storm – and home to most of the severe flying weather of the storm) at around 180 knots, and try to go perpendicular to the winds and cloud columns found there. These parameters allow for the least amount of stress on the airframe and crew with the shortest amount of flying time in the most turbulent part of a hurricane.

The aircraft on display was fresh out of an overhaul, and the paint was pristine. A crew member noted that after flying through a few storms, chips from heavy precipitation and hail are normally seen.

The WC-130s operate from their home at Keesler AFB, in Biloxi Mississippi. There have been times when a crew departed Keesler just in front of a storm, and knew that their homes and especially their families were about to be struck by a hurricane… yet they did their jobs for the good of all residents in the storm’s path.

Endurance can be 10 to 12 hours per flight, with transit time figured. Some crews reposition to be closer to a storm before beginning their weather reconnaissance. Crew is usually five – a pilot, copilot, navigator, flight engineer and weather coordinator.

Dropwindsondes – ejected from a spring-loaded chute the belly of the aircraft, transmit temperature, humidity, wind and air pressure readings about every second. Slowed by a parachute, it drops around 25oo feet per minute, and after it hits the water, about 90 percent of the foot and a half long structure dissolves. The WC-130J’s weather coordinator checks the data to insure it appears to be useful, and then it is data linked to the National Hurricane Center to be used in models and data bases for storm forecasts. Four radiosondes can be launched and active at the same time, their normal usable lifetime is about four minutes. One common aim for most flights is to pinpoint the exact center of the storm, and those conditions at that point.

The normal altitude of a Hurricane Hunter mission while in the storm is 10,000 feet Mean Sea Level, although missions with lower altitudes have been flown. With waves reaching 30 – 40 feet in height, a radar altimeter couldn’t help an aircraft to maintain a certain altitude above ground level in these cases.

NOAA’s WP-3D Orions were built for NOAA in 1975, there are only two of these purpose-built aircraft. Although they can and will penetrate a hurricane in a similar fashion to the WC-130, the aircraft’s mission is to offer science the chance to explore and perform research on a storm… thus up to a dozen additional scientists and meteorologists can carried aboard, into the storm.

The WP-3Ds have been rebuilt recently, with brand new wings and beefier engines that give slightly more power than the original models. One crew member said they should be operational for another fifteen years.

The three NOAA hurricane hunting aircraft are named after Muppett characters – Kermit the Frog visited Quonset, while the other WP-3D is named Miss Piggy. A Gulfstream IV is named Gonzo, after the radome nose of the jet and its similarity to a beak. A Gulfstream G-550 jet is being fitted out too, but the name of the aircraft hasn’t been released yet. The Gulfstream(s) perform their duties in the 45,000 foot altitude range, not down in the WP-3’s altitudes.

A vertically scanning Doppler radar is fitted to the tail of the turboprop, which can slice through columns of wind and rain for scientific research. A large belly pod carries weather radar too. There are almost a dozen work stations within the aircraft’s cabin that can be configured for crew and visiting passengers to work with the various instruments and radars aboard.

The WP-3 penetrates an eye wall of a hurricane at around 210 knots, again basically perpendicular to the wall cloud.

The WP-3 had numerous stickers (otherwise known as “zaps”) on the back wall inside the cabin, from news networks, military organizations and places it has been. Outside on the fuselage, aft of the rear stairway, a tally of the storms and countries the aircraft and its crew had operated from is displayed… including 110 storms and 35 countries besides the U.S.. 

An array of laser instruments is mounted on the left wing outboard of the engines… this allows for particle and aerosol measurement and detection with a storm’s clouds.

Apart from aviation knowledge, we attendees learned much about hurricane preparedness. Here’s a brief set of ideas to keep in mind before a storm hits… Recommended preparations for an upcoming storm now far exceed just checking your batteries for flash lights and radios, etc. The biggest point which was made by officials were for families and localities to have a plan and stick to it. An interesting note, Massachusetts was the first state to comprehensively plan for disasters like hurricanes.

Some major concerns that should be addressed before a storm hits include:
1) Personal safety – how will you evacuate, and where?
2) Family preparedness – Build a disaster supply kit. Also, plan how to meet after a storm (remember that cell phone towers may be damaged – so plan an alternate means of communication).
3) Financial security after the storm, from money for repairs to Flood Insurance – have an Insurance check-up.
4) Being up to date with building codes ahead of a storm – strengthen your home to withstand wind and flood damage.
5) After you’re safe and secure, definitely plan on how to help your neighbors too.

So in closing, before “the big one” storm hits, you should be prepared… and this presentation not only dealt with precautions, but how forecasters can predict where and how severe a given storm will be. Aviation plays a big part in collecting data to help predict the severity of storm conditions in the days before a storm makes landfall, and a few of the tools (specialized aircraft) and their crews used to collect information were on hand.

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Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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