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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TeBeest: From an airplane standpoint, Irene was not severe. The larger storms like Katrina, the category 4 or 5 storms that have all the well-developed convection in the eye wall, those can be an interesting ride. Something like Irene was slow to get its act together. It was more of a ragged storm and spread out. There’s more turbulence throughout the length of the flight than what you get in a more developed storm, where all the turbulence and convection is really in the rain bands and eye wall. But the airplanes are sturdy aircraft and well proven.

A & S: Have there been any close calls, or is it all pretty safe and steady?

TeBeest: It’s pretty safe and steady. We’ve gotten to the point now where we have quite a bit of experience, many decades of doing this. Our airborne meteorologists and technicians who fly with us each have a role to play and we bring that together and we know where to penetrate an eye wall. We feel pretty confident we can continue to do it safely.

A & S: The P-3s were built in 1975 and 1976. Manufacturer Lockheed’s service analysis recommends either re-winging them or replacing them by 2018. Which do you think should happen?

TeBeest: We would have to look at whether we as an agency and a society value this capability. An observation from an inner eye wall is something we can’t get from a satellite. Rewinging the P-3s would allow us to continue that. The acquisition of a new aircraft is a huge number. To then instrument that aircraft with the right capabilities and instruments would be a significant [financial] effort.

A & S: What sort of background do NOAA pilots have?

TeBeest: We have internally produced pilots who start with the NOAA lighter aircraft and work their way up to a P-3. We also look at the U.S. Navy, which flies the P-3 for its own mission. Quite often we get inter-service transfers from the Navy, folks that are already qualified in the P-3. They come to us as commissioned officers and then we give them some experience in the storm environment and eventually qualify them as hurricane pilots. We get a lot of talent from both avenues.

A & S: What’s the training like?

TeBeest: Every month our pilots are training, it’s that type of job. For the P-3, the Navy is the manager for operating and training at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. We use those folks, their simulators, and their instructor-pilots along with our own instructor-pilots and flight engineers to maintain our proficiencies throughout the year.

A & S: The public expects NOAA to study hurricanes, but do the aircraft fly other missions that might surprise most of us?

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