Do you ever wonder how meteorologists get their hurricane data? On today’s show, host Dan Zehner gets the answers from Commander Justin Kibbey, one of NOAA’s “hurricane hunter” pilots. Kibbey flies NOAA’s P-3 Orion aircraft missions straight into hurricanes, multiple times, while a crew of weather experts and technicians gather data to predict the path and strength of the storm.
A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Kibbey spent 10 years doing aerial reconnaissance and wartime flights over places like Iraq and Afghanistan. He flew the P-3, a four-engine turboprop designed to fly low and hunt submarines. After his Naval service, Kibbey joined NOAA’s crew of hurricane hunters, where he is wrapping up his eighth season.
Kibbey describes NOAA’s rugged planes (built in the 1970s and based on 1950s designs) as flying research laboratories. The aircraft are powerful, with redundant systems, and built to fly low. Each mission is crewed with 15-20 people: NOAA officers, navigators, government and civilian technicians and meteorologists – and scientists, all working to collect data as they fly though hurricane storms.
Kibbey describes the low altitude flights (5,000 to 12,000 feet), aiming for the “sweet spot,” or the eye of the storm, to get what he calls “an MRI” of the hurricane. In the no-wind, low-pressure center, researchers gather data for creating the spaghetti models that the public studies to see where a storm will travel. One tool used by hurricane hunters is tail Doppler radar, which reveals a storm’s inner structure. The missions also deploy “dropsondes” small cylindrical tubes that fall through the atmosphere measuring pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed, providing a profile of a column of air. Assembled together, these data paint an accurate picture of a storm and its intensity.
NOAA’s planes cover the breadth of a storm, 400 miles or more. While satellites can provide some data, a plane in the storm provides the most and most accurate information.
Kibbey describes flying through Superstorm Sandy, the largest he’s experienced. He also recalls his first mission as a hurricane hunter, an eight-hour flight through Hurricane Earl. It was a white-knuckle ride, until the plane passed into the eye. He describes the shock of seeing stars overhead – and a bolt of lightning that lit up the entire eye wall. One of his most turbulent flights was in Hurricane Irma, which put the plane through the wringer, he says. The crew on this flight was particularly stressed – because many of them had family in the path of the hurricane.
The goal for hurricane hunters is to find out where the storm is will go, via reconnaissance and research. Technology constantly improves, and Kibbey speculates someday the research can be gathered remotely. Already, crews launch UAVs into hurricanes, into places too dangerous to fly a plane. And satellites may one day be able make readings as accurate as instruments on flying laboratories. Until then, from June through November, hurricane hunters fly through storms gathering data that can save lives.
Hurricane data, including photos, from the 2017 hurricane season www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/data_sub/hurr.html
More about NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters www.omao.noaa.gov/learn/aircraft-o…urricane-hunters
Hurricane Hunters on Facebook www.facebook.com/NOAAHurricaneHunters/
National Hurricane Center, to see data collected by the Hurricane Hunters. www.nhc.noaa.gov/
Justin Kibbey www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/Storm_pages/…F(DavidHall).jpg
Music by Mike Tetrault