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Cyberflight Into the Eye
 

     
 
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 briefing..."

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.

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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 normal flight.

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
 

a 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 away!  
 
"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
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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 plane.
 
a   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 Dennis' eye.

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a 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 Center.

 

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!   a
 
a   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 storm.

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.

 

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