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: Yes, we have many efforts throughout the year. We do a weather research mission with our P-3s out of Diego Garcia. It’s a multi-agency cooperative type of program involving the Navy, Army, NOAA, and National Science Foundation. We’ve also done a winter storms mission in January and February that looks at storms in the Pacific heading for the U.S. Those storms quite often are responsible for the mudslides and flooding you see on the West coast during the winter. We have a smaller fleet of twin-engine turboprops that have a number of uses. One works in the northern parts of the United States to determine the snow water equivalent of the snowpack so scientists can better forecast floods in the spring. We have several Twin Otter aircraft that do marine mammal observations of mammals on the endangered species list. NOAA has a mandate to track them and make sure we don’t lose them. 

A & S: Is it an adrenaline letdown for hurricane pilots to just observe snow?

TeBeest: You’d think so, and we do have pilots that move from one aircraft to another. Typically, each pilots flies two aircraft just to be efficient. The snow survey mission is actually quite interesting because it’s at 500 feet above the ground in the mountains. So it’s a very hands-on type of flying and not boring by any means. I’ve been with NOAA for 21 years and what I’ve found is the flying I’ve done here has really ruined me for any other type of flying. I have no real strong interest in flying from point A to point B and back again at altitude and autopilot. That’s of no interest to me and, I think, my peers as well.

A & S: What were some of your missions?

TeBeest: My last aircraft was primarily the P-3, so I flew a lot of storms. The last big year was 2005 and I flew storms like Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, which had the lowest pressure and highest wind speed ever measured airborne. Those were incredible opportunities. I’ve also flown the snow survey and air chemistry missions, and a number of things that we’ve gotten involved with on the lighter aircraft. It’s been a great flying opportunity and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I see a lot of different types of operations as I go through my career when we fly into other airports. And I’ve got to say, this is one of the most dynamic and most interesting flying [jobs] that I could have chosen.

A & S: With all your responsibilities, do you still have time to fly?

TeBeest: This particular job is no longer a flying job. Although I may get the chance to fly an occasional flight here and there, to be able to go out with the folks on the road like they do for three or four weeks is unrealistic and I wouldn’t be able to do that. But it’s certainly on my horizon and I like to think that I’ll get that opportunity [someday]. It’s not off my radar.

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