Noting that 2020 is NOAA’s Golden Anniversary, Here’s More Hurricane Awareness Coverage
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is celebrating their Golden Anniversary of Fifty Years in 2020. NOAA’s history is an intrinsic part of the history of the United States and the development of its science and commercial infrastructure. In honor of this milestone, here is a look back at the East Coast Hurricane Awareness Tour of 2019 at Harrisburg Pennsylvania with new interviews and photos.
I had the unique opportunity to speak with the National Hurricane Centers Director, Mr. Ken Graham. Director Graham was in the midst of the East Coast Hurricane Awareness Tour in Harrisburg Pennsylvania when he gave this interview. The 2019 tour focused on the dangers of inland flooding from Hurricanes. Director Graham purposely selected cities such as Harrisburg Pennsylvania and Roanoke Virginia for this tour. Even though they are located hundred of miles from the Atlantic Ocean coastline, they are located in areas where inland flooding has been problematic.
Mr. Graham also talked in detail about the forecasting of hurricanes at the National Hurricane Center. The tracking and forecasting begins as soon as there are indications a storm will form. The forecasts come from computer models, satellites and the Hurricane Hunter aircraft collecting data. Currently, there are over 10 forecast models available to meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center to help them forecast and predict hurricane intensity and movement.
The Hurricane Hunter aircraft can be sent out to investigate a storm immediately after it forms. Director Graham noted that the evolution of technology, especially the use of weather satellites, has greatly helped the National Hurricane Center prepare better hurricane forecasts. The National Hurricane Center also immediately begins working with FEMA and other federal, state and local agencies to prepare for any storm that might strike the United States. Despite the forecast models vastly improving, the National Hurricane Center still has some problems forecasting and predicting hurricanes. For example, the forecast models have become very accurate at predicting storm surge amounts, but are still failing at predicting hurricane intensity with accuracy. It is also not fully understood why some hurricanes rapidly intensify over warm water but others do not. It is hoped that future hurricane research will yield more data and measurements to improve these forecast models.
During an actual hurricane, the entire National Hurricane Center is on high alert. The National Hurricane Center has the ability to “work” three storms at one time, dedicating a desk in the center to each storm. At times, more than three storms form and the agency becomes stretched with staffing and resources. During the hurricane off-season, the National Hurricane Center writes a report detailing each storm the agency tracked and forecast during the hurricane season that year. Mr. Graham noted that future hopes are for more funding for hurricane research and possibly using drones to conduct some of the research. He also hopes to see increased use of advanced weather satellites to track and forecast hurricanes. However, for the time being, the Hurricane Hunter aircraft are one of the most important resources available to help meteorologists track and forecast hurricanes.
Director Graham also noted the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center try to continue to push the message of the danger of inland flooding. The message is being conveyed not only to the general public but also state and local emergency management agencies. To accomplish this, the National Hurricane Center has regular meetings, conferences and training programs with state and local emergency management officials and regularly trains for hurricane strikes.
Finally, Director Graham recalled that as someone who grew up in Arizona, he became interested in weather when a severe storm hit his community. He sees events such as the 2019 East Coast Hurricane Awareness Tour being critical to educating people about the dangers of hurricanes, especially inland flooding. Lastly, he emphasized successful hurricane preparation involves all federal, state and local agencies working together. Past experiences have taught all the agencies how important team-work is in hurricane preparation and how important it is to emphasize to the general public they need to heed warnings about dangerous storm conditions and evacuate if they are told to do so.
Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC) Forecast is for the 2020 Hurricane season to be an active one. The two main conditions that contribute to the 202 forecast are the current temperature of the sea surface in the North Atlantic Main Development Region (MDR) which is +1.1 °C in early to mid-April. The second factor is the predicted development of mild El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)-negative conditions by boreal late summer and early fall. If these conditions continue to develop, the prediction is for 15 to 24 storms to form, with a best estimate of 20 named storms.
The hurricane names chosen for the 2020 season are:
• Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky, Wilfred.
NOAA brought ‘Kermit’ their Lockheed WP-3D Orion on the East Coast Hurricane Awareness tour. The NOAA fleet of aircraft all bare the names of Jim Henson’s Muppets. As the story goes the other WP-3D (N43RF) was in rough shape cosmetically and was referred to as the ‘Pig’ by the Flight Engineer. The name eventually evolved into ‘Miss Piggy’. The name caught and on and Jim Henson Productions was contacted to see if they had any interest in creating nose art for the aircraft based on the Muppet characters. The idea was a hit and the fleet now has ‘Kermit’ (WP-3D) and ‘Gonzo’ (Gulfstream IV).
There are only two WP-3D’s and they are both operated exclusively by the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The aircraft are currently based in Lakeland Florida.
I had a conversation with Commander Nate ‘Shaka’ Kahn, the Aircraft Commander and Pilot of the Lockheed WP-3D Orion. CDR Kahn served as a U.S. Navy P-3 pilot with Special Projects Patrol Squadron TWO (VPU-2), Patrol Squadron THIRTY (VP-30) and FORTY-SIX (VP-46).
Thank you sir for spending some time with me. You have the rank of Commander, are you still with the Navy?
The simple answer is yes. I graduated the Naval Academy (Class of 2003) and served in the Navy for twelve years. I went to to the Navy’s flight training schools and became a P-3 pilot. I had nearly three thousand flight hours in the P-3 and wanted to keep flying. However there came that point in my Naval career that I had to move onto an Administrative position. I found the solution to both flying and continuing my Naval service by requesting a inter-service transfer to NOAA.
How does the mission of the WP-3D differ from that of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s WC-130J Weatherbird?
While we are both called Hurricane Hunters, the Air Force fly’s a different mission profile than we do. They have a set mission profile and they penetrate a storm at a predetermined pattern and altitude. The other difference is that they are sending back real time information to the National Hurricane Center to predict the storms strength and track. Our mission is more scientific research. The aircraft has the ability to run up to seven weather experiments at once. A typical mission day for us is flying as many as two missions in a twelve hour period. When we enter a storm we search for weather bands to fly through. If possible we go where the weather researchers and scientist want us to go.
As the Aircraft Commander of the WP-3D, do you have the final say as to what weather you fly through?
Yes, my job is to is to keep us right-side up and moving in the right direction. The weather researchers and scientist suggest where they would like us to go. The Aircraft Commander has the final say, but it is an educated decision. If I have any doubt, I look over my shoulder to the Meteorologist / Flight Director station for either a ‘go’ or ‘no go’ signal. The Meteorologist / Flight Director keeps a close eye on the weather radars trying to avoid any radar returns or echos that look like a “U” , “Hook” or “Fingers”. These radar returns indicate very severe thunderstorms and possible tornadic activity.
What is the typical mission crew staffing for the aircraft?
A typical mission flight crew consists of eleven members but we can have as many as twenty people aboard. The flight crew consists of an Aircraft Commander / Pilot, Co-Pilot, Meteorologist / Flight Director, Navigator, Flight Engineer, Electronics Engineer, two Electronics Technicians and NOAA Weather Researchers and observers. The observers are typically scientist and media.
Is the WP-3D a specially built Orion for weather research?
Yes, there are only two and they are almost forty years old. They are not former Navy P-3 Orion patrol aircraft. They were developed from the P-3 Orion and excepted by NOAA directly from Lockheed (in 1975 and 1976). Here today we have ‘Kermit’ (BuNo 159773 / 5622 /. N42RF) and the other WP-3D is known as ‘Miss Piggy’ (BuNo 159875 / 5633 / N43RF). Both aircraft have recently received refurbished wings, new engines, upgraded state of the art electronics and new paint jobs. The aircraft are strengthened but not for what you may think. The WP-3D does not have strengthened wings or control surfaces, but it does have a strengthened floor for all of the added equipment weight aboard. The overhaul (at the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center Southeast in Jacksonville, Florida) should keep the aircraft flying for another fifteen to twenty years.
What radars and sensors is the WP-3D equipped with?
This aircraft is equipped with three radars. There is a weather radar (Rockwell Collins C-band nose radar) in the nose, another on the lower fuselage (C-band research radar) and one in the tail cone (360 degree horizontal fan beam tail Doppler radar). The big one underneath on the lower fuselage that looks like a giant M & M scans the storm horizontally while the tail Doppler radar scans the storm vertically. These radars work together in creating a three dimensional MRI like image. This allows the researchers and scientist to slice the images and see all the different layers and internal structure from within the storm.
The aircraft also has two protruding probes none as ‘Barber’s Poles’ for their red and white stripes. The one mounted to the nose of the aircraft has been replaced with a second Barbers Pole on the port wing to take air samples. While the Barber’s Pole on the nose still remains, it now serves as a lightning rod. Like the WC-130J we also have expendables such as the dropsondes and a Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) known as the Smurf. Mounted to the underside of the port wing you will find dust and particle sampling apparatus. There are also probes for sampling the size of raindrops and ice crystals.
With the Hurricane season being June 1st through November 30th, what is your mission the rest of the year?
We keep busy even in the off-season. The crews continue to train and the aircraft receive maintenance and equipment upgrades. We have also conducted missions for NASA studying atmospheric and climate research. We are planning to research severe weather in the mid-west United States after Hurricane season.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS) is equipped with ten WC-130J ‘Weatherbird’ aircraft.
The squadron is capable of flying three missions at once. The WC-130J is a standard C-130J transport equipped four Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 engines and six-bladed GE-Dowty Aerospace R391 composite propellers. The Weatherbird features two mission systems palletized weather stations that can be rolled on and off. The WC-130J equipped with two additional 1,400 gallon wing tanks is capable of staying aloft almost 18 hours at an optimum cruise speed of more than 300 mph without aerial refueling.
Lockheed Martin advertises that the endurance of the C-130J is equivalent to the P-3C and surpasses all other competitive maritime patrol aircraft.
An average weather reconnaissance mission might last as long as 11 hours and cover almost 3,500 miles while the crew collects and reports weather data. The WC-130J carries a minimal crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, aerial reconnaissance weather officer and weather reconnaissance loadmaster.
Here is our interview with U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Deroche of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS) of Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. Lt. Col. Deroche is a pilot and crew member on the WC-130J ‘Weatherbird’. The 53rd WRS is an AFRC organization assigned to the 403rd Wing known as the ‘Hurricane Hunters’.
Lt. Colonel Deroche, the Hurricane Hunters are an Air Force reserve squadron. Are you staffed with both full time Air Force personnel as well as reservist?
Well it is a little bit of both. We have Air Reserve Technicians (ART’s) that make up half of our twenty crews. Ten of the crews are Air Reserve Technicians who are Federal civil service employees during the week and are also Air Force reservist. Essentially, they work for the same people doing the same job. Sometimes they are military, sometimes they are civilians when they perform their jobs. The other half of the squadron are traditional Air Force reservist.
When we get really active, we do not have enough full time airmen. So the reservist have to come out and participate. We really depend on them and their employers to release them from their regular jobs at a moments notice. We get as little as sixteen hours notification to go fly into a storm. We make a phone call and ask, hey can you get the next seven to ten days off and get here tonight?
Your squadron has such a unique mission, I would imagine that your squadron personnel could be spread around the country.
Yes, we have reservist that come from all over the country. In fact one of our guys is a FedEx pilot and he commutes from Hong Kong.
What makes the C-130 the aircraft of choice for this type of mission?
This aircraft handles the extreme weather pretty well. Mainly because the turbo-prop engine is so efficient at keeping us slow and under control in a storm environment. It is very good at handling water ingestion. A traditional jet engine essentially has a big opening in the front. If an engine were to ingest a lot of water in a storm it could bog down or flame out. The C-130 has a jet engine that is turning a propeller. However our engine inlet is so much smaller than a traditional jet engine that water ingestion is not a problem.
I have read that the WC-130 isn’t strengthened beyond a normal C-130 Hercules.
No it isn’t. The WC-130J is actually a standard C-130J taken off of the assembly line. We only added some weather equipment and two extra crew members before we go fly through hurricanes. The designers in the 1950’s with slide rules were thinkers, they sent us to the moon. Those same type of thinkers engineered this aircraft.
Can you tell me more about the WC-130J and its unique capabilities?
Well the only unique things we have is the additional weather equipment. We have the dropsondes and we can carry two palletized equipment loads that can be rolled on and off. One pallet does the vertical side and the weather officer sits at another pallet of equipment and they do all of the horizontal aircraft level sensor gathering. We also can carry out cargo mission when it is not hurricane season.
Photorecon File Photo of WC-130J by Ken Kula
I noticed you have a unique sensor under the right wing. Could you explain what it is and its function?
That is a Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) we call it the Smurf. It is a passive system that basically is always just listening. The sun is always emitting microwave radiation, it is even present in the atmosphere at night. It measures radiation that is reflected off of the seafoam on the water surface. It measures how much of the seafoam is being stirred up by the surface winds. It can’t determine wind direction, however it can determine speed within a few knots with pretty good accuracy. The more action it can detect from the seafoam, the more accurate it can determine the wind speed at the surface.
And the dropsonde is used to determine the upper level winds?
Yes, the dropsonde leaves the aircraft and it measures the vertical profile of the storm from our flight level to the surface. It is sensing data the entire time it is falling , about four times a second. It descends at a rate of about two thousand to twenty-five hundred feet per minute. Typically we drop them from ten thousand feet and they fly for about four or five minutes. It constantly sends back pressure, temperature, humidity readings as well as its GPS position. We can determine wind speed and wind direction from the GPS position and the change over time.
How is that the crew can withstand all of the buffeting and turbulence as you pass thru an eye wall?
You kind of get used to it. Surprisingly, we spend five to six hours in the storm environment but the real turbulent stuff is the last thirty to fifty miles in and outbound.
Does it remain turbulent all the way out that far?
No, it will be banded and you will be hitting it and it will get progressively worse as you get closer to the center.
With your mission, do you look for the more turbulent air?
Yes, its counter intuitive it’s the exact opposite of what every pilot is trained to do. We actually go fly through the bad weather. The Air Force has to wave the rules because we are not allowed as military pilots to fly through that stuff. So because the nature of the mission, they accept the risk of us flying through that heavy weather.
Have the Hurricane Hunters ever been onsite conducting a mission and been called to conduct a search and rescue?
It has happened where there might be a vessel in distress in a storm environment and obviously we are out there. They won’t impede our mission, but rather ask us to do the best we can to locate them. We have the capability through a marine emergency radio to communicate with them. We will hail them and try as best we can to get their position and vector the Coast Guard to them. There was a sailboat off of Hawaii a few years ago that got stuck in a Hurricane. They were sailing from California to Hawaii and one of our crews found them and vectored in the coast Guard C-130 through the hurricane. The Coast Guard crew flying the C-130 had never flown into a hurricane. So our crew was able to coach them on the better techniques to deal with extreme turbulence and the bad weather.
Your unit uses the callsign Teal, does that have any significance?
It is heraldry, there have been three weather squadrons in our history and all of their callsigns were birds. We use Teal which is a type of duck and a lot of people think it is the water color in a storm but it’s not. There was also Gull and Swan, it’s just traditional callsigns.
How fast can you transmit storm information back to the weather service? For example, when the Weather Channel says the Hurricane Hunters are out there now taking readings, how fast does that information get to them?
We call it near real time. Basically the aircraft is always packaging the data it is sensing and it sends it out approximately every ten minutes. So to answer your question, the stuff that reaches the Hurricane Center is usually no more then ten to twelve minutes old.
Your unit is out of Keesler Air Force Base and do you forward deploy to Guam and the west coast as well?
We fly from Keesler and the standard area of operation goes from about the middle of the Pacific Ocean at about 55 west all the way to the west side of Hawaii. When they start to look and they have an idea based on their computer models and satellites that a storm is probably going to develop here, they give us a call.
If a wave were to come off of Africa when does it become something you are deployed to? Must it become a tropical depression or some other minimum storm organization?
No, if they have a good idea that its going to form and even before its a hurricane we can do what is called a low level investigative mission. We will go in as low as five hundred feet off of the water looking for closed circulation. There are troughs and complete circulation. If you have a closed low at the surface, it will be a circular wind and we will look in each quadrant for a defined circular wind. If we find that then they know it will probably be a depression in the next few hours, a day at the most.
Do the pilots train for flying in hurricane conditions in the simulator?
No, not in the simulator. We do conduct local training flights where we go over and practice our techniques and the ways we can mitigate the risk. The only real way to learn to fly into a hurricane is you get a new pilot and team them with an instructor pilot. You get told all about it, but until you experience it you just don’t get the real picture.
Well I have to ask, in the movie The Hunt for Red October when Jack Ryan is flying to the carrier aboard a C-2 in extreme turbulence. The crew chief turns to him and says; Some turbulence… Oh this is nothing! You should have been with us five, six months ago. Oh! You talk about puke! Does it get that bad?
(Both of us laughing) Well you never know. We do take some national media and local news outlets from areas that are effected up with us and some people do have weak stomachs.
I would like to extend a special thank you to the Harrisburg International Airport for hosting a world class event. To NOAA for bringing their East Coast Hurricane Awareness tour to Harrisburg Pennsylvania and inviting us in to learn more about their mission. Mr. Peter Jung of the National Weather Service (State College, Pennsylvania) for the media access. National Hurricane Center Director Kenneth Graham for his insight and hospitality. Commander Nathan Kahn and the crew of the WP-3D ‘Kermit’ as well as Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Deroche and the 53rd WRS crew of the WC-130J ‘Weatherbird’ for allowing an unprecedented all access look at both of their aircraft and missions. And a special thank you to Corey Bietler and Distelfink Airlines an online aviation newsletter for the assistance with the interviews and photography. To all a grateful and heartfelt thank you!