ABOVE THE ATLANTIC OCEAN – Charging into the heart of a hurricane aboard an enormous, lumbering military aircraft is initially, dare I say it, boring.
The call comes less than 24 hours out. You’ll be gone at least 12 hours. It could be the most uneventful ride of your life. It could be the most terrifying.
Either way you’ll be riding with a storied military unit that first began turning their focus toward the churning sea 75 years ago - on a dare.
In 1943 pilot Col. Joseph Duckworth flew a single-engine plane into a category 1 storm near Galveston, Texas, on a bet. He won. He also realized that what he saw inside the swirling clouds might have some greater worth. He was right.
While modern satellites have improved hurricane tracking capabilities and weather models, they can’t see what is happening at the heart of the storm. Tell-tale signs of a hurricane’s projected strength and movement lie in the barometric pressure and wind speed data that can only be measured deep inside the storm. Hurricane hunting was born.
In those 75 years, the storms have claimed six military aircraft and 53 souls.
When I received notice Saturday afternoon that there was room on board for media the next day, I began packing. My friends began panicking, rightfully so since this band of all Reserve Air Force members run towards what the rest of us run from.
Which, they say, is exactly why they fly.
“We’re concerned for our coastal areas,” said Lt. Col. John Fox. “These are our neighbors and friends. Our data helps better determine who needs to evacuate and when.”
Fox is a member of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. The Air Force Reserve unit is based at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. They operate 10 aircraft and can monitor up to three storms spread from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and into the Pacific Ocean, past Hawaii.
When there is room, they let a few of us come along for the ride.
Inside the WC-130J Hercules, a modified version of the C-130 transport plane, comfort is not the mission. You’re never quite situated on the red canvas seats that fold down from the sides of the aircraft’s interior walls, built to hold paratroopers.
The beverage cart is a self-service, orange, worksite jug of water hanging from the front wall of the fuselage. Hungry? If you didn’t bring food, today you are dieting. And the bathroom? There is a seat, a hole and a curtain and that’s all we’re going to say about that.
As we wait inside the aircraft the engines are already roaring. Sweat runs down my spine, there is no air conditioning to keep us cool. My winter jacket is rolled up in the seat next to me. There is also no heat to keep us warm as the climb above the Atlantic can cause temperatures inside the aircraft to plummet. The loadmaster, Tech. Sgt. Zachary Zieman, hands us government-issue, brown envelopes with neatly folded plastic bags inside.
“If you get sick, get sick in here,” he yells above the engine noise before pointing first to oxygen masks and then to floatation devices, just in case.
There was potential for this flight to be miserable for the uninitiated. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pretty darn excited.
From Kessler the Atlantic is three hours, one-way. There is no engine hum, there is engine roar and unlike passenger planes the interior is not insulated and protected against the noise. Tiny yellow earplugs guard you from a life of hearing loss and guarantee that your fellow passengers won’t be making small talk.
The crew that returns as we prepare to leave says Hurricane Chris is a “wobbling, 40 knot storm.”
The disturbance of wind and water has stirred itself up enough to claim a spot on the 2018 hurricane list but now the hunters were heading out to see just how memorable a storm it planned to become.
Above the water the clouds turn from fluffy and dreamlike to thick and foreboding. Small, swirling whitecaps swish in the water below.
As we fly through this is where the hunting begins.
Hurricane Chris is disorganized and messy. The crew is here to measure and look closely at its behavior. Here they hunt for clues as to how fast it will become and how big.
The meteorologist aboard knows how to read the movement of the water to help measure wind speed. The air inside the plane fills with the smell of sea salt.
Fox, who flew through Katrina, says bigger storms are calm inside.
“A wrapped up storm like Katrina is beautiful inside. Like many things that are deadly but beautiful,” he said.
We fly at 2,500 feet but the crew can dip as low as 500 feet above the water surface when a tropical disturbance emerges.
Up and down drafts of wind cause turbulence. Today, it’s rough but not terrifying. A downdraft smacks us and drops the aircraft about five feet. We all are tossed out of our seats and into the air, just long enough to make it feel like a theme park ride.
Zieman points to red dots on the radar that we are trying to avoid, where the worst of the storm is shifting and sputtering, trying to organize and strengthen.
We spend about two hours inside the system. As we make the ascent out, there is a flash of light. The lights inside the aircraft dim for a moment. We would learn later, that was the moment lightning struck us.
In the cockpit the radar system was kaput. The crew said there was a “burning smell” when they tried to turn it back on. So instead, they relied on a duplication of their systems carried on I-pads. They seemed completely unfazed by the hit.
On the ground the aircraft’s nose appears to have taken the brunt of the damage. There are spidery, scratches all over the black metal. It looks as though tiny animals climbed aboard and scratched and scratched and scratched.
The crew is quick to head back to the building and finish for the day. Since they are reservists many of them will be back at their civilian jobs in the morning. Their data was sent to the National Hurricane Center in Miami in real-time as it was gathered. Hurricane Chris managed to increase its wind speed. The crew said they expect it to continue to strengthen through the week.
Tonight, around 10 p.m., another crew will head out into the dark, swirling waters to measure it again. On land forecasters will rely on their data to help keep millions of people safe.