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Rain Man

Snow, sleet, hail or volcanic eruption cloud physicist Peter Hobbs will find a way to fly into it

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Hobbs' customary reserve cracks again when he recounts a mad dash into the scalding plume of Mount Saint Helens as it spewed ashes several miles into the atmosphere on the morning of May 18, 1980. The volcano blew at 8:20 A.M. on a Sunday, and by 11 A.M. Hobbs and his crew were in the air and flying toward it.

"As we approached this monster, I could see that the huge plume looked like a cauliflower with each part heaving and turning," he recalls. As they flew 20 miles downwind, a volley of explosions suddenly rattled the plane. "I remember thinking we’re being hit by rocks and we’re dead," he says. "But it turned out to be volcanic hailstones—highly charged conglomerations of dust that fell apart when they hit the plane."

The noise was terrifying, but the aircraft sustained no significant damage. As the plume drifted into Idaho, Hobbs recorded some of the first quantitative measurements ever made of the carbon dioxide, water vapor and sulfur dioxide emitted by an erupting volcano.

Given his passion for flying into billows of smoke, volleys of volcanic hail and torrents of microscopic ice crystals, I was surprised to learn that the Convair had recently been sold. "I’ll miss the excitement of doing fieldwork all around the world," he says. But he won’t miss having to raise $2 million each year, most of it in grants, which he needs to fund his aerial projects.

Even so, Hobbs is adamant that he has no intention of coming in out of the rain. After all, he has accumulated enough data to keep him and his department squeezing secrets out of the clouds for at least the next ten years.

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