JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The experience of a lifetime began as we rolled down runway 39L at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, in a specially outfitted Air Force HC-130 turboprop plane.
Typically the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the Hurricane Hunters, is based in Biloxi, Mississippi. But for Hurricane Florence, the entire squadron was based in Savannah as it flew multiple missions into the storm each day this week.
I joined one of their last missions, leaving early Thursday afternoon as Florence was less than 100 miles from the North Carolina coast. We flew for about an hour to reach the storm, then spent about eight hours flying through it.
There are four challenging parts of the storm that the Hurricane Hunters have to endure:
1) The outer rain band. This can actually have some of the roughest turbulence as these storms are rather chaotic.
2) The inner rain band, referred to as the eyewall. Turbulence can be extreme in the zone of severe thunderstorms. This is where the highest winds typically are measured within a hurricane.
3) The same turbulence on the way out.
4) Managing airsickness while inside the cargo area of the Hurricane Hunter.
Once in the eye, your teeth no longer chatter. On this 10-hour flight, we passed through the eye of Florence six times, once around sundown.
On each trip through the hurricane, the Air Force team gathers critical information, dropping instruments, called dropsondes, into the storm.
"It's about 15 inches, pretty light. It's got a nice stabilization parachute that comes out of it when it falls in the storm to keep it oriented correctly," Master Sgt. Tom Barnaby said. It gets the temperature, the pressure, the wind speed, wind direction -- all that -- and it transmits it right back to this computer."
The weather officer for the 53rd WRS weather officer, Maj. Tobi Baker, said all the data is gathered from 2 miles up, the altitude of the plane, all the way to the surface.
"These are only some of the variables we measure," said Maj. Tobi Baker, the 53rd WRS weather officer.
All the data gathered is sent on to the National Hurricane Center, where it helps the computer models make more precise forecasts. And the projections for Florence was among the best ever. Five days ago, the NHC predicted that Wilmington would be in the direct path of Florence. That's where it made landfall just after 7 a.m. Friday.
The better the forecast, the less we spend on preparing and less disruption of our every day lives. It has been shown that for every one mile of East Coast shoreline not put under the forecast cone, it saves $1 million a day in economic impact.
While this flight was a rare opportunity for me, it's a daily experience for the Hurricane Hunters when storms threaten.
"We have three aircraft right now that take turns, so about every 24 hours you're going back into the storm," Baker said. "So you're given enough time to sleep, eat, relax a little bit, and then go into the storm again."
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