Lightning flashes around our U.S. Air Force Reserve WC-130J Super Hercules military aircraft. The odd smell of ozone from the outside electric interaction with the atmosphere is quite noticeable in the plane.
But the wind is eerily calm now, here in the Eye, a far cry from just minutes ago when we passed through the last part of the menacing eye-wall bands of Hurricane Dorian. Stars are even visible overhead out of the cockpit window. When we entered the storm earlier, it was a Category 4, with winds of over 150 mph. Now it is teetering on Category 5. We saw 167 mph on the plane radar gauge earlier.
I try to enjoy the calmness, and the beauty. The stacked white cloud wall formation surrounding us in the Eye, a semi-circle, looks like an immense stadium structure from the center of a football field at the 50-yard line. The beauty and serenity makes it hard to imagine the destructive violence in the seemingly peaceful clouds we had just navigated!
Why am I here? I hitched a ride with the world-famous Hurricane Hunters of the 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squad, part of the 403rd Wing at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS. My pilot, Lt. Col. Sean Cross, 48, has penetrated hurricanes 165 times, so I am in very good hands. Cross’s advice for any pilot flying into a storm like this: “It’s serious business. Don’t become complacent, be ready for the unexpected, guard the controls.” As far as I could see, he followed his own advice to the T.
To say I am nervous is an understatement. As an adventure journalist, I have done a number of risky things including riding in a MiG-25 aircraft at Mach 2.6 to 84,000 feet above the Earth, climbing the Matterhorn and testing a Bugatti Veyron at its top speed of 253 mph. But when I told my colleagues about this hurricane fly-in, they said I was nuts.
To be clear, we are not on a joyride. During the flight, we are gathering data important to predicting the strength and direction of the storm, including wind speed, barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, etc. Such vital information can potentially save billions of dollars in property damage, as well as countless lives.
The Hurricane Hunters have a long and storied history. Formed in 1943 as a bar room dare, the intrepid group has been active at Keesler since 1973, flying a myriad of weather reconnaissance missions. The 403rd wing currently consists of 1,300 personnel and the base houses 10 WC-130J aircraft.
Like many hurricanes, Dorian started as a small tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea. As warm water and high humidity fueled its growth, the storm began to take on historic proportions. It is one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to have developed on the Atlantic Ocean side of the U.S.
Coming here into the Eye was no picnic. First, we had to travel three-and-a-half hours over the Gulf of Mexico and Florida to the storm. The ride was fairly uneventful as we sat, belts fastened along the side of the fuselage, like you might see when military parachutists are waiting to jump. We had snacks (there is no meal service on a WC-130J) and there was a toilet in the back surrounded by a curtain. Occasionally, the crew would launch a dropsonde out of the back of the aircraft to measure atmospheric and water dynamics as it fell into the sea, some 10,000 feet below us.
But as soon as we hit the eye-wall, about five miles from the Eye, or hurricane center, the ride became very bumpy. For me, the gyrations made it difficult to take video, but wasn’t turbulent enough to make me sick. We each had a barf bag, of course, just in case.
In the end, we criss-crossed the monster storm several times, collecting data, with four passes through the Eye. The last pass was the most violent, as the hurricane was nearing Category 5 status. The entire flight took 12 hours, 30 minutes, five hours in the storm itself, 30 minutes in the Eye and seven hours traveling back and forth from the storm. These brave airmen do this kind of flight on a regular basis. Cross is going back out on Sept. 4. Pretty impressive.
Where will Dorian land? No one knows for sure. It’s been battering the Bahamas, pretty much stalled. The latest forecast says it may hit northern Florida and Georgia, then skirt up the east coast of the U.S. But it may stay out in the water, too.
Only time will tell, but our measurements probably helped predict Dorian’s ultimate path. Cross says that the missions conducted by the Hurricane Hunters improves forecast accuracy by as much as 25%. That’s a number to feel good about.
Video from inside Hurricane Dorian’s Eye:
This article was originally sourced from here.