|Over your headset you hear
the pilot talking.
"Attention to storm
briefing, crew. Things are about to get busy, so please minimize
chatter. The navigator will be directing the aircraft until we
get close to the eye, then Weather will take us in from there,
with the Nav backing him up. Copilot, guard the autopilot, and
kick it off if we get into severe turbulence. We're about to
start our descent to 10,000 feet. Loadmaster, please make sure
our passenger is belted in and the cargo compartment is secure.
We don't want anything flying around back there! Weather, your
As you take your seat, the loadmaster comes to
you to ensure that you are buckled in. She tells you it's about
to get bumpy and hands you an airsick bag.
You hear her yell over the drone of the engines
that most people don't need them but don't be embarrassed to use it
if needed. Then she sets off about her work tying down anything lose
in the cargo compartment. It's obvious she isn't preparing for a
Meanwhile over the headsets you hear the ARWO, "Ok crew, Dennis
seems to have slowed down a bit. NHC has adjusted our first fix 30
nautical miles south of the expected fix position. Navigator, you'll
need to adjust the flight plan accordingly. The last crew reported a
minimum pressure of 962 millibars and maximum winds of 120 miles per
hour making it a category two hurricane. They didn't report any bad
bumps but NHC says the storm has shown signs of intensifying since
then so we could have a cat 3. Navigator, your briefing".
You hear the briefing continue as the crew prepares to enter the
storm. Then the plane begins its descent to 10,000 feet from the
24,000 foot cruise altitude and slows to 180 knots. Outside the
aircraft you can tell that it's getting darker as the clouds get
thicker. Once safely at 10,000 feet, you're allowed out of your seat
to look out the windows. The crew is busy monitoring the weather
instruments, the radar, and looking out the window.
We're now 105 nautical miles from the predicted center of Hurricane
Dennis and the plane begins a turn inbound toward the eye of the
storm. The weather officer switches on the High Density Data, which
means the airplane is collecting position and weather data every 30
seconds. You look over his shoulder at his computer screen, but it
just looks like a bewildering mess of numbers--until he explains how
to decode it. Each page of numbers is zapped through a satellite
link directly to the computers at the National Hurricane Center, and
eagerly studied by the forecasters to see how large and how strong
the storm is.
Now the real fun begins. The weather officer looks down at the
churning seas below, and estimates the strength of the wind by how
the water looks. White caps, patches of foam, spray: each hint at
the power of the furious winds spiraling around this dangerous
hurricane. The navigator asks the pilots to swerve around a
particularly nasty thunderstorm--no need to tempt fate at this stage
of the game
||The navigator calls out that he
sees the eye on radar. There are spiral bands of thunderstorms
wrapping around a bright ring surrounding a clear spot on radar.
The bright ring is called the "eyewall" and is a solid ring of
thunderstorms, containing the most violent weather in the storm.
It looks so small on the scope, but the ARWO assures you the
tiny clear spot is 15 miles across, and the eyewall is 20 miles
|"We're five miles from the
eyewall." announces the navigator. Heavy rain begins to pelt the
airplane, and sheets of water wash over the windows. It gets
darker, and turbulence begins to rock the plane. It's hard to
walk back to your seat, but the loadmaster assures, "You ain't
seen nothing yet!"
"We're about to penetrate the eyewall; everyone strap in,"
commands the pilot. Just as you finish snapping your seatbelt
closed, you're thrown violently against your straps. You get
that "funny feeling" in your stomach as the plane free-falls
1000 feet, and you feel nearly
|weightless for a
moment. Through the deafening noise of surging propellers and
pounding rain, you think you hear someone yell "Yee-hah!"
Suddenly, the plane seems to buck in every direction at once,
and a brief flash of lightning breaks through the darkness so
close you can actually hear the thunder over the noise of the
||After what seems like an eternity (was it really
just three minutes?), the dark grey clouds outside the window
begin to brighten, and suddenly blinding white light stings your
eyes. The hiss of heavy rain shuts off in the same instant. One
or two sharp bumps, and the plane flies smoothly again.
You're not sure you've ever felt your heart
pound so hard, but you survived...you're in the eye!
As your eyes adjust to the glare of sunlight,you gaze out at one
of the most awesome scenes in nature: the "stadium effect"
inside the eye. A solid wall of clouds circles around the
WC-130, as though you are floating in a giant football stadium
made of clouds. You are inside a giant well that opens up miles
above your head into a bright, blue sky.
Congratulations...you've just joined an exclusive group: those
few people who have entered the eye of a hurricane
|There's no time to relax; the real work lies
ahead. "We're almost there," declares the weather officer. "I
see a calm spot ahead on the water," confirms the pilot.
You notice that the air conditioning doesn't
seem to be working so well anymore, then you remember hearing
that the temperature is warmer inside the eye.
Meanwhile, at the back of the plane, the
loadmaster is busy loading the dropsonde into its launch tube,
getting ready to drop the instrument into the exact center of
||The weather officer watches intently as the wind
speed dies off, then suddenly the wind shifts; instead of coming
from the left, it's now coming from the right.
"Fix it here!" shouts the weather officer, and
the navigator marks our precise position--the exact center of
the eye. There's a "der-chunk" sound
|as the dropsonde ejects from the
plane with a push of a button. "Sonde away," announces the
loadmaster. Everyone is working furiously as the ominous wall
cloud looms ever closer to our "tiny" airplane.
The navigator plots the position and compares
it to the last fix from the Hurricane Hunter airplane that left
Dennis two and a half hours ago. "Dennis is moving 340 degrees
(north-northwest) at 7 knots (8 mph)," he informs the crew. The
weather officer finishes typing up the last details on the
Vortex Data Message, then with a few keystrokes, the critical
information is sent via satellite to the National Hurricane
|We punch back into the eyewall
and plunge immediately into the darkness, rain, and turbulent
air that we had left only a few moments ago. But somehow it
doesn't seem so bad this time (now that you're a veteran
Hurricane Hunter!). The dropsonde finally hits the water, and
the loadmaster codes up the information. His report: the
sea-level pressure is 942 millibars. This surprises the crew,
since the last fix reported it as 962 millibars! The weather
officer explains that a five millibar drop can be
significant...but this is amazing!!! The news electrifies the
forecasters in Miami; Dennis is really intensifying!
||You fly another 105 nautical
miles away from the eye to measure the extent of damaging winds
in that quadrant of the storm, then turn to intercept the next
inbound leg in the big X-shaped alpha pattern crisscrossing the
Less than two hours after the last time you
penetrated the eye, you're there again! In fact, you'll
penetrate the eye a total of four times on this flight, until
the next Hurricane Hunter airplane is on its way to take over.