As Hurricane Ian intensified on its way toward the Florida coast, hurricane hunters were in the sky doing something almost unimaginable: flying through the center of the storm. With each pass, the scientists aboard these planes take measurements that satellites can’t and send them to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center.
Jason Dunion, a University of Miami meteorologist, leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2022 hurricane field program. He described the technology the team is using to gauge hurricane behavior in real time and the experience aboard a P-3 Orion as it plunges through the eyewall of a hurricane.
What happens aboard a hurricane hunter when you fly into a storm?
Basically, we’re take a flying laboratory into the heart of the hurricane, all the way up to Category 5s. While we’re flying, we’re crunching data and sending it to forecasters and climate modelers.
In the P-3s, we routinely cut through the middle of the storm, right into the eye. Picture an X pattern – we keep cutting through the storm multiple times during a mission. These might be developing storms, or they might be Category 5s.
We’re typically flying at an altitude of around 10,000 feet, about a quarter of the way between the ocean surface and the top of the storm. We want to cut through the roughest part of the storm because we’re trying to measure the strongest winds for the Hurricane Center.
That has to be intense. Can you describe what scientists are experiencing on these flights?
My most intense flight was Dorian in 2019. The storm was near the Bahamas and rapidly intensifying to a very strong Category 5 storm, with winds around 185 mph. It felt like being a feather in the wind.
When we were coming through the eyewall of Dorian, it was all seat belts. You can lose a few hundred feet in a couple of seconds if you have a down draft, or you can hit an updraft and gain a few hundred feet in a matter of seconds. It’s a lot like a rollercoaster ride, only you don’t know exactly when the next up or down is coming.
Even in the rough parts of the storm, scientists like myself are busy on computers working up the data. A technician in the back may have launched a dropsonde from the belly of the plane, and we’re checking the quality of the data and sending it off to modeling centers and the National Hurricane Center.
What are you learning about hurricanes from these flights?
One of our goals is to better understand why storms rapidly intensify.
Rapid intensification is when a storm increases in speed by 35 mph in just a day. That equates to going from Category 1 to a major Category 3 storm in a short period of time. Ida (2021), Dorian (2019) and Michael (2018) are just a few recent hurricanes that rapidly intensified. When that happens near land, it can catch people unprepared, and that gets dangerous fast.
Since rapid intensification can happen in a really short time span, we have to be out there with the hurricane hunters taking measurements while the storm is coming together.
So far, rapid intensification is hard to predict. We might start to see the ingredients quickly coming together: Is the ocean warm to a great depth? Is the atmosphere nice and juicy, with a lot of moisture around the storm? Are the winds favorable? We also look at the inner core: What does the structure of the storm look like, and is it starting to consolidate?
Satellites can offer forecasters a basic view, but we need to get our hurricane hunters into the storm itself to really pick the hurricane apart.
What does a storm look like when it’s rapidly intensifying?
Hurricanes like to stand up straight – think of a spinning top. So, one thing we look for is alignment.
A storm that isn’t yet fully together might have low-level circulation, a few kilometers above the ocean, that isn’t lined up with its mid-level circulation 6 or 7 kilometers up. That isn’t a very healthy storm. But a few hours later, we might fly back into the storm and notice that the two centers are more lined up. That’s a sign that it could rapidly intensify.
We also look at the boundary layer, the area just above the ocean. Hurricanes breathe: They draw air in at low levels, the air rushes up at the eyewall, and then it vents out at the top of the storm and away from the center. That’s why we get those huge updrafts in the eyewall.
So we might watch our dropsonde or tail doppler radar data for how the winds are flowing at the boundary layer. Is that really moist air rushing in toward the center of the storm? If the boundary layer is deep, the storm can also take a bigger inhale.
We also look at the structure. A lot of times the storm looks healthy on satellite, but we’ll get in with the radar and the structure is sloppy or the eye may be filled with clouds, which tells us the storm isn’t quite ready to rapidly intensify. But, during that flight, we might start to see the structure change pretty quickly.
Air in, up and out – the breathing – is a great way to diagnose a storm. If that breathing looks healthy, it can be a good sign of an intensifying storm.
What instruments do you use to measure and forecast hurricane behavior?
We need instruments that not only measure the atmosphere but also the ocean. The winds can steer a storm or tear it apart, but the ocean heat and moisture are its fuel.
We use dropsondes to measure temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed, and send back data every 15 feet or so all the way to the ocean surface. All of that data goes to the National Hurricane Center and to modeling centers so they can get a better representation of the atmosphere.
One P-3 has a laser – a CRL, or compact rotational raman LiDAR – that can measure temperature, humidity and aerosols from the aircraft all the way down to the ocean surface. It can give us a sense of how juicy the atmosphere is, so how conducive it is for feeding a storm. The CRL operates continuously over the entire flight track, so you get this beautiful curtain below the aircraft showing the temperature and humidity.
The planes also have tail doppler radars, which measure how moisture droplets in the air are blowing to determine how the wind is behaving. That gives us a 3D look at the wind field, like an X-ray of the storm. You can’t get that from a satellite.
We also launch ocean probes call AXBTs – aircraft expendable bathythermograph – out ahead of the storm. These probes measure the water temperature down several hundred feet. Typically, a surface temperature of 26.5 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) and above is favorable for a hurricane, but the depth of that heat is also important.
If you have warm ocean water that’s maybe 85 F at the surface, but just 50 feet down the water is quite a bit colder, the hurricane is going to mix in that cold water pretty quickly and weaken the storm. But deep warm water, like we find in eddies in the Gulf of Mexico, provides extra energy that can fuel a storm.
This year, we’re also testing a new technology – small drones that we can launch out of the belly of a P-3. They have about a 7- to 9-foot wingspan and are basically a weather station with wings.
One of these drones dropped in the eye could measuring pressure changes, which indicate whether a storm is getting stronger. If we could drop a drone in the eyewall and have it orbit there, it could measure where the strongest winds are – that’s another important detail for forecasters. We also don’t have a lot of measurements in the boundary layer because it’s not a safe place for a plane to fly.
You also targeted the Cabo Verde islands off Africa for the first time this year. What are you looking for there?
The Cabo Verde Islands are in the Atlantic’s hurricane nursery. The seedlings of hurricanes come off Africa, and we’re trying to determine the tipping points for theses disturbances to form into storms.
Over half the named storms we get in the Atlantic come from this nursery, including about 80% of the major hurricanes, so it’s important, even though the disturbances are maybe seven to 10 days ahead of a hurricane forming.
In Africa, a lot of thunderstorms develop along the Sahara desert’s southern border with the cooler, moister Sahel region in the summer. The temperature difference can cause ripples to develop in the atmosphere that we call tropical waves. Some of those tropical waves are the precursors for hurricanes. However, the Saharan air layer – huge dust storms that come rolling off Africa every three to five days or so – can suppress a hurricane. These storms peak from June to mid-August. After that, tropical disturbances have a better chance of reaching the Caribbean.
At some point not too far in the future, the National Hurricane Center will have to do a seven-day forecast, rather than just five days. We’re figuring out how to improve that early forecasting.
For airlines, hurricanes represent a massive issue, causing thousands of flights to be canceled and rerouted until the storm blows over. While modern aircraft are capable of flying over, or even through, hurricanes, safety risks remain, and carriers usually halt operations are the affected airports instead.What happens when a plane goes through a storm? ›
All planes are designed to fly through storms and have to comply with safety regulations. A rainstorm is unlikely to cause damage to the aircraft. The only danger of flying through a rainstorm is the risk of freezing rain, but in this case, your plane will most likely be delayed until the storm passes.How do planes fly into the eye of a hurricane? ›
The planes fly through the eyewall at the center of the storm, crisscrossing multiple times from 1,000 to 10,000 feet before returning to base. “A lot of data is gathered from the aircraft itself because we have sensors on the airplane unlike other C-130s to help us gather weather data,” explains Lt. Col.Can a plane go through a hurricane? ›
DALLAS – The short answer is yes; it is feasible for a commercial aircraft to fly over a hurricane while remaining out of the storm's path.What would you observe if you were in the eye of a hurricane? ›
Skies are often clear above the eye and winds are relatively light. It is actually the calmest section of any hurricane. The eye is so calm because the now strong surface winds that converge towards the center never reach it.What type of plane do they fly into hurricanes? ›
To perform their missions, the Hurricane Hunters use the WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft. This plane is actually a modified cargo plane configured with sophisticated weather instruments to measure parameters such as wind, pressure, temperature, and humidity.What happens when a plane crashes into water? ›
Once an aircraft has landed on water, passengers and staff are then evacuated. There is no single figure which dictates precisely how much time crews have before the aircraft sinks, but the structure of the plane will, in most cases, allow enough time. Most aircraft also have life rafts.Can a plane take off during a thunderstorm? ›
Can a plane take off in a thunderstorm? Technically, it is possible, but pilots and air traffic experts prefer to keep planes on the ground when a storm is present and wait for it to calm down before setting off.What happens if a plane engine fails? ›
A passenger aircraft will glide perfectly well even if all its engines have failed, it won't simply fall out the sky. Infact it can fly for around 60 miles if it loses its engines at a typical cruise altitude of 36,000ft.How many hurricane hunter planes have crashed? ›
The Hurricane Hunters That Never Returned
Hurricane hunting became safer with the introduction of sturdier 4-engine planes, but flying through the eyewall of any hurricane remains a dangerous occupation--one that has claimed six hurricane or typhoon hunter planes, with loss of 53 lives.
Povey became an advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of recon mission he envisioned did not happen until July 1943, when Colonel Joe Duckworth flew an AT-6 from their base in Texas into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston.Is it safe to be in the eye of a hurricane? ›
On land, the center of the eye is, by far, the calmest part of the storm, with skies mostly clear of clouds, wind and rain. Over the ocean, however, it's also the most dangerous: inside, waves from all directions slam into each other, creating monster waves as tall as 130 feet.How much wind will cancel a flight? ›
A crosswind above about 40mph and tailwind above 10mph can start to cause problems and stop commercial jets taking off and landing. It can sometimes be too windy to take-off or land.How do planes avoid hurricanes? ›
Flights are routed to avoid those areas where the thunderstorms present a threat. It is possible to overfly a hurricane if the destination is on the other side of the storm. However, some storms can create turbulence at high altitude and that has to be factored in when choosing a route.Can a plane survive a tornado? ›
It is difficult to imagine any aircraft surviving the experience of encountering a tornado while in flight. If an aircraft on the ground cannot be removed from an at-risk position, then damage to it and other aircraft and structures may be lessened by securing the aircraft to the ground.What happens if you go outside during a hurricane? ›
Don't walk outside to “feel” the wind.
Curiosity killed the cat, and it could be just as lethal for you. Hurricane winds can reach anywhere from 75 to 200 mph, and even small bits of debris can be deadly at those speeds.
For those who are caught outside in high winds, The Weather Channel advises taking cover next to a building or under a secure shelter. Wind can easily bring down trees, branches, and power lines. It also may blow around outdoor furniture and other heavy items.What happens when a hurricane passes over cold water? ›
Once they move over cold water or over land and lose touch with the hot water that powers them, these storms weaken and break apart. Recent studies have shown a link between ocean surface temperatures and tropical storm intensity – warmer waters fuel more energetic storms.How many hurricane planes are still flying? ›
The Hawker Hurricane played a vital role in the Battle of Britain. There are only 12 airworthy Hurricanes left in the world, and the BBMF proudly operates two of these historically important aircraft: Hurricane LF363 (Mk IIC) - believed to be the last Hurricane to enter service with the RAF.Can planes fly through tropical storms? ›
Can Planes Fly Through Tropical Storms? Planes can fly through tropical storms, though most pilots will fly above or avoid them since it's easier and safer than flying through the tropical storm itself. Flying through tropical storms results in severe turbulence, potential damage to the plane, and passenger discomfort.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, known as the Hurricane Hunters of the Air Force Reserve, is the only Department of Defense organization still flying into tropical storms and hurricanes – since 1944.Can you survive a plane crash into the ocean? ›
Most of the world's oceans are very cold, so you will likely succumb to hypothermia if you manage to get out of the plane alive. Add to this that most people are average swimmers at best, so drowning becomes more likely. This becomes even more likely with the stress of the crash and the energy expended to stay afloat.What happens to bodies when a plane crashes in the ocean? ›
This Is What Happens To Your Body If You Die In A Plane Crash - YouTubeCan a plane survive a water landing? ›
Airplanes are designed so that a water landing won't cause immediate harm to passengers. Many ditching-related deaths are from drowning, not the impact. But don't let this discourage you from flying. Forced water landings are unlikely to happen, especially on a commercial flight.What does it feel like when plane is struck by lightning? ›
What Happens If A Plane Gets Struck By Lightning? - YouTubeIs flying on a plane safe? ›
The odds of surviving a plane crash are high
Even if your plane does go down, your chances of surviving the crash are high. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board says the odds are more than 95 percent.
Doing some rough math based on that estimate, it's likely that there are anywhere between 7,782 and 8,755 commercial planes in the air on average at any given time these days. There is some seasonality to consider, though.How long can a plane fly on a full tank? ›
Even so, the typical range on a single tank of fuel for a private jet are typically about 1,500 miles for small aircraft. In most cases, this is enough to carry passengers to major destinations in the continental US without having to refuel.Can a Boeing 737 fly with one engine? ›
Can a passenger jet fly with only one engine? A twin-engine plane can fly perfectly well on only one engine. In fact, it can even continue the take-off and then safely land with just one engine.How long can a plane stay in the air without engines? ›
All fixed-wing aircraft have some capability to glide with no engine power. They continue to glide horizontally while landing, instead of sinking straight down like a stone. For example, if both engines stop, the aircraft has 20-30 minutes to find somewhere to land.
Answer. Planes are generally not destroyed by strong winds while in flight. Airliners routinely fly in jet streams with winds exceeding 150 mph over the U.S. during the winter. It's the shear, or sudden change in horizontal or vertical winds, that can destroy an aircraft, or cause its loss of control.What happens when a hurricane crosses over land? ›
Hurricanes usually weaken when they hit land, because they are no longer being fed by the energy from the warm ocean waters. However, they often move far inland, dumping many inches of rain and causing lots of wind damage before they die out completely.Why do people fly into hurricanes? ›
There are two distinctive groups of hurricane hunters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Air Force Reserve (USAF). Both organizations fly missions into tropical disturbances in order to record invaluable data used by forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (NHC).When did first plane fly into a hurricane? ›
The first crewed flight into a hurricane happened in 1943 when a pilot-trainer flew into a Category 1 hurricane near Galveston, Texas on a bet. In the past, before satellites were used to find tropical storms, military aircraft flew routine weather reconnaissance tracks to detect formation of tropical cyclones.Who piloted the first plane that intentionally flew into a hurricane in 1943? ›
CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - On July 27, 1943, U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph Duckworth became the first person to intentionally fly into the eye of a hurricane. Accompanied by Lt. Ralph O'Hair, Duckworth flew a single-engine AT-6 trainer into the eye of the storm, located between Houston and Galveston.Why do Hurricane Hunters use prop planes? ›
Answer: The turboprops are more tolerant of hail than the jets. Airplanes that penetrate thunderstorms have an increased chance of encountering hail.Is the eye of a tornado calm? ›
Though the eye is by far the calmest part of the storm, with no wind at the center and typically clear skies, on the ocean it is possibly the most hazardous area. In the eyewall, wind-driven waves all travel in the same direction.Can you be in the eye of a tornado? ›
What would it be like to be in the eye of a tornado? There is no “eye” to a tornado like there is in a hurricane. This is a fiction largely caused by the movie Twister. Tornadoes are complex and can have multiple small structures called “sub vortices” rotating inside the larger parent circulation.Why do you fill your bathtub with water during a hurricane? ›
If a hurricane is likely in your area, you should:
Fill the bathtub with water to be used for toilet flushing during a loss of power. If your well is flooded or damaged by the hurricane, assume that it is contaminated and do not use it until it has been flushed, disinfected and tested for bacteria.
Talk to an agent
First, get in line to speak with an agent. You might also want to call the airline while you wait. Typically, if your flight is canceled, the majority of airlines will rebook you on the next flight available to your destination at no additional cost.
While it may seem hazardous on the ground, it is not uncommon for airplanes to fly in snow. This is because planes usually fly above snowfall, which makes it a non-factor for pilots and flight dispatchers. However, this is only true for commercial flights because they fly higher than smaller recreational aircraft.Can planes fly in rain? ›
Yes, even small aircraft using basic equipment without advanced technology can fly in the rain as long as visibility is good and weather conditions overall are still within the limits of the aircraft you are flying.Can a helicopter fly in a hurricane? ›
As far as hurricanes are concerned, it is always best for helicopters to stay away from them. Bad weather flight is possible in a lot of harsh weather conditions, but hurricanes are different. Because the winds get up to 75 miles per hour and higher, it is simply unsafe to fly in hurricane weather.Can butterflies fly through a hurricane? ›
How do butterflies survive severe storms? A. Some butterflies and moths ride out storms with high winds, heavy rain and falling temperatures by seeking shelter. Refuges include the underside of leaves and tree limbs, leaf debris, crevices in rocks and clumps of tall grass.Can planes land in a thunderstorm? ›
Planes can and will land in thunderstorms, though this is by no means the norm and will depend on the severity of the storm. The biggest issues a pilot will experience when trying to land a plane are microbursts and wind shear.Do pilots avoid clouds? ›
Airline pilots will normally take action to avoid any cumulonimbus clouds, but particularly those bearing mammatus formations, as these indicate especially severe turbulence within the cumulonimbus.Which state has the most plane crashes? ›
More than 80% of Alaskan communities are inaccessible by the state's road network. Many rural communities rely on airplanes to transport people and deliver mail. Alaska is plagued with 42% of the deadly plane crashes involving commuter, air taxi, and charter flights–nationwide.What happens if you fly through a cloud? ›
These cloud-borne updrafts and downdrafts result in rapid and unpredictable changes to the lift force on the wings of an aircraft. More or less lift and the difference between these changes is what causes the aircraft to lurch and jump about during flight, or turbulence as it is called within the industry.Can butterflies fly through a hurricane? ›
How do butterflies survive severe storms? A. Some butterflies and moths ride out storms with high winds, heavy rain and falling temperatures by seeking shelter. Refuges include the underside of leaves and tree limbs, leaf debris, crevices in rocks and clumps of tall grass.Can planes fly Category 1 hurricanes? ›
The simple answer is: yes, pilots are allowed to fly in hurricanes, provided certain conditions apply. When the wind and weather are within legal and safe parameters, a pilot is allowed to fly the plane while there's a hurricane going on.
It is difficult to imagine any aircraft surviving the experience of encountering a tornado while in flight. If an aircraft on the ground cannot be removed from an at-risk position, then damage to it and other aircraft and structures may be lessened by securing the aircraft to the ground.Can planes fly over a tornado? ›
Answer: Normally if a tornado is present, the intensity of the clouds provide the controller and pilots with enough information where the flight will not get close to the tornado. Where the real threat exists is on the ground.What is the butterfly effect quote? ›
There is an iconic scene in “Jurassic Park” where Jeff Goldblum explains chaos theory. “It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems,” he says. “The shorthand is 'the butterfly effect. ' A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine.”Is the butterfly effect real? ›
"The Butterfly Effect" is not a thing in and of itself. It is just a metaphor for the principle of Chaos Theory. More technically, it is the "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". The term is often ascribed to Edward Lorenz who wrote about it in a 1963 paper in the New York Academy of Sciences.Can a butterfly cause a tsunami? ›
Put more simply, this is the so-called butterfly effect: the light fluttering of butterfly wings may cause unpredictable consequences or, more graphically, can lead to large-scale phenomena like tsunamis.How do planes avoid hurricanes? ›
Flights are routed to avoid those areas where the thunderstorms present a threat. It is possible to overfly a hurricane if the destination is on the other side of the storm. However, some storms can create turbulence at high altitude and that has to be factored in when choosing a route.Can planes fly in heavy rain? ›
Even taking off and landing in heavy rain, snow, and fog is possible for aircraft equipped with adequate instruments and automated control systems for the conditions. However, heavy winds and thunderstorms, which often accompany rain, can keep aircraft grounded and result in airline flight cancellations.Can planes fly above storms? ›
Jet aircraft can safely fly over thunderstorms only if their flight altitude is well above the turbulent cloud tops. The most intense and turbulent storms are often the tallest storms, so en route flights always seek to go around them.Do pilots avoid clouds? ›
Airline pilots will normally take action to avoid any cumulonimbus clouds, but particularly those bearing mammatus formations, as these indicate especially severe turbulence within the cumulonimbus.Can planes fly in lightning? ›
Ultimately, it is usually perfectly safe for planes to fly in storms. Today's aircraft, especially big passenger airplanes, are designed to deal with lightning strikes, rain, and other conditions.
Moreover, the turbulence inside a cloud can become extreme and break apart an aircraft. Thus, it is extremely dangerous to fly inside such a system.Can you fly through a rainbow? ›
Scientists can rest easy. Colourful “rainbow” pictures do not break the laws of physics. The airline passenger Melissa Rensen, from London, Canada, took the photographs out of an aircraft window as she flew over the Caribbean Sea.Is it better to fly in winter or summer? ›
Most pilots agree that summer is the favored season for flying. Aircraft engines may prefer winter with its cool, oxygen-rich air, but summer often brings less weather and fog, better visibility and generally more agreeable flying conditions.Can helicopters fly near a tornado? ›
Helicopters are great for storms approaching a metro area, but they don't have the range to chase throughout the plains, and they don't have the speed to catch up with a storm that is a 100 miles away.