John Gaughan flies into Florence aboard Hurricane Hunter aircraft

By Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor, Francine Frazier - Senior web producer, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

SAVANNAH, Ga. - Chief Meteorologist John Gaughan and News4Jax photographer Chris O'Rourke rode aboard a Hurricane Hunter plane for 10 hours Thursday, flying through Hurricane Florence to get a firsthand look at its power.

News4Jax joined the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron's mission, taking off from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. They use a Lockheed WC-130 turboprop plane, the Air Force's version of the Navy C-130 Hercules transport plane we've often seen flying out of Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

Gaughan described picturesque blue skies within towering walls of severe storms that make up the most dangerous part of any hurricane: the eyewall. But Florence's eyewall showed signs of continued weakening and was "barely maintaining itself" Thursday, Gaughan said.

The six trips the hurricane hunters took inside the eye of Florence each supported expectations that the North Carolina coastline was helping to weaken the still dangerous storm.

The flight returned around midnight. Just before taking off, Gaughan posted a Facebook Live video.

A crew of six hurricane hunters -- a pilot, two co-pilots, a flight navigator, a weather officer and a load master -- fly through the storms at 5,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, flying through the eye of a storm four to six times to locate the low-pressure center and circulation.

During each pass through the center, the load master releases a dropsonde, which collects weather data such as temperature, surface winds, wind direction and pressure on its descent to the ocean surface. A stabilization parachute deploys when the device is dropped, helping it to stay properly oriented inside the storm.

The information the dropsonde gathers is transmitted to a computer on board the aircraft and then sent to the National Hurricane Center by satellite communication every 10 minutes.

"The Atlantic Ocean are data-sparse environments due to the lack of radar and weather balloons in those areas, and satellite data can be incomplete, so the data the Hurricane Hunters provide is vital, potentially saving lives and property," said Maj. Jeremy DeHart. 

Providing data to the NHC will keep the squadron busy this week, but it's not unusual for the squadron to fly multiple storms at the same time, DeHart said. The squadron's area of operations is vast, extending from the middle of the Atlantic to just past the Hawaiian Islands, and through an inter-agency agreement, tropical weather reconnaissance is governed by the National Hurricane Operations Plan. This plan requires the squadron to support 24-hour-a-day continuous operations, with the ability to fly up to three storms simultaneously with response times of 16 hours.

Last year was the 10th busiest season on record, and the squadron flew hurricanes Katia, Jose and Irma simultaneously.

Gaughan said the hurricane hunters love their work, knowing that the data they collect helps improve current forecasts and research for future storms.

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