The Hurricane Hunters

When Atlantic storms threaten, NOAA pilots answer the call.

NOAA's Randy TeBeest with Lockheed WP-3D Kermit(NOAA)
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Captain Randy TeBeest took command of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Florida in July 2011. The center, on MacDill Air Force Base, is home to most of NOAA’s 11 research aircraft, including the agency’s WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV “hurricane hunter” airplanes. A career aviator, TeBeest was interviewed in September by Executive Editor Paul Hoversten.

Air & Space: The Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program—a 10-year project involving NOAA, NASA, and the National Science Foundation—aims to reduce errors in hurricane intensity forecasts by 50 percent by 2018. How big are the errors and what has been the impact?

TeBeest: We’ve had great success in increasing the forecast errors of track line forecasts, and we’ve come a long way in the past 10 years on that. We haven’t been as successful in forecasting intensity. Hurricane Irene was an idea of where we are now. There was a bit of difficulty in determining what that storm’s intensity would be when it reached landfall, which was the important point. With some of the warm water eddies that are in the gulf and along the coastlines, we’re trying to focus on those kinds of things that makes storms grow rapidly or decays them rapidly. So there’s uncertainty that goes with the intensity and that’s really the focus of the program, which we’re in year three now. 

A & S: Will the forecast improvement also improve the track prediction?

TeBeest: I don’t know that there’s a direct correlation. As you look at the intensity and structure of the hurricane, of course you realize benefits from that different data set in all realms of hurricane forecasting. But we use many tools and instruments to determine the track-line forecasting already, and that’s not the objective of the program.

A & S: How has the increase in powerful storms affected the Aircraft Operations Center?

TeBeest: Certainly 2004 and 2005 were extremely busy years for us. We’re base funded for a particular number of hours every year. As we get more storms, that’s a priority mission, so it draws resources from other airborne efforts. It’s a balancing game to figure out where to best use our limited resources.

A & S: How are the tail Doppler radar on NOAA’s two P-3 Orions helping to improve the forecasts? 

TeBeest: We’ve had the instrument on the P-3s for some time. We’ve used it for research purposes to determine the structure of hurricanes. What we’re finding now is that the tail Doppler radar data is also useful in improving the intensity forecasts. We’re installing a similar instrument now on our [Gulfstream] G-4, which provides the high-level observation of the whole hurricane. When we fly through hurricanes, we have the lower level P-3s going through the eye wall and the upper-level G-4 that flies around the storm and determines the steering winds. Between those two [aircraft types], it gives us really a good idea of the structure of the storm.

A & S: How much of a beating do the P-3s take when they fly through hurricanes like Irene?

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