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Why Does NOAA Still Send Pilots Into Hurricanes?

The first “Hurricane Hunter” flight was a bet, but today they’re an essential part of risk management

The WP-3D Orion "Hurricane Hunters" are a key part of NOAA's hurricane toolkit.(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1943, an Air Force pilot flew into a hurricane to win a bet.

His name was Col. Joe Duckworth, and he was the first person to ever intentionally fly into a hurricane. But many have followed him since: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps a fleet of airplanes specifically made for this purpose. To anyone who’s ever been forced to flee from a hurricane, the practice might seem absurd–but it produces vital data that helps the government institution predict how bad a hurricane is likely to be and where it is going next.

Duckworth did so in order to prove a point to the European pilots he was training, according to NOAA. A retired colleague of his recalled to the agency that Duckworth was training British pilots in the then-innovative practice of instrument flying at Bryan Field in Galveston. “Many of the British pilots were already ‘Aces’ from earlier battles over Europe,” recalled Lt. Col. Ralph O’Hair, Duckworth’s copilot. They thought that they should be learning in high-tech planes, rather than training planes–and when it was announced that an extremely strong hurricane was heading their way, they mocked the planes for not being able to withstand what to them was just a strong wind.

“The problem was that few, if any European had ever experienced a true hurricane,” O’Hair remembered. Duckworth finally got tired of the heckling and made a bet with his trainees: he would fly right into the storm and out again “showing that both the plane and his instrument flying technique was sound.” The trainees staked a cocktail on him not being able to do it.

Because this was a sketchy plan, Duckworth didn’t tell his superiors. But he managed to pull it off. “He would later make the flight a second time, this time with the base weather officer onboard,” writes Engineering 360. “Once Duckworth and his navigators were able to show that hurricane reconnaissance flights were possible, the beginning of modern-day hurricane hunting was born.”

Today, hurricane hunters fly specially equipped planes that NOAA describes as “high-flying meteorological stations.” The data the planes and crew gather “help forecasters make accurate predictions during a hurricane and help hurricane researchers achieve a better understanding of storm processes, improving their forecast models.”

As Duckworth knew, planes aren’t usually destroyed by strong winds. “Airliners routinely fly in jet streams with winds exceeding 150 mph over the U.S. during the winter,” writes  NOAA. Hurricanes, which are large storms with circular wind patterns, can have winds as slow as 74 mph.

But though airplanes can withstand the trip to the eye of the hurricane, NOAA writes the process of flying in and out of the storm to record and examine pressure changes is is “grueling.” Pilots fly missions of eight to ten hours, and as well as recording data, the flight crew needs to be on the lookout for any severe weather hot spots or “shear”–defined by  NOAA as “a sudden change in horizontal or vertical winds.” That can tear an airplane apart.

History does not record whether Duckworth got his victor’s cocktail, but it’s reasonable to assume he did enjoy it, with his feet on the ground.

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