The Hurricane Hunters

When Atlantic storms threaten, NOAA pilots answer the call.

NOAA's Randy TeBeest with Lockheed WP-3D Kermit NOAA

Captain Randy TeBeest took command of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Florida in July 2011. The center, on MacDill Air Force Base, is home to most of NOAA’s 11 research aircraft, including the agency’s WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV “hurricane hunter” airplanes. A career aviator, TeBeest was interviewed in September by Executive Editor Paul Hoversten.

Air & Space: The Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program—a 10-year project involving NOAA, NASA, and the National Science Foundation—aims to reduce errors in hurricane intensity forecasts by 50 percent by 2018. How big are the errors and what has been the impact?

TeBeest: We’ve had great success in increasing the forecast errors of track line forecasts, and we’ve come a long way in the past 10 years on that. We haven’t been as successful in forecasting intensity. Hurricane Irene was an idea of where we are now. There was a bit of difficulty in determining what that storm’s intensity would be when it reached landfall, which was the important point. With some of the warm water eddies that are in the gulf and along the coastlines, we’re trying to focus on those kinds of things that makes storms grow rapidly or decays them rapidly. So there’s uncertainty that goes with the intensity and that’s really the focus of the program, which we’re in year three now. 

A & S: Will the forecast improvement also improve the track prediction?

TeBeest: I don’t know that there’s a direct correlation. As you look at the intensity and structure of the hurricane, of course you realize benefits from that different data set in all realms of hurricane forecasting. But we use many tools and instruments to determine the track-line forecasting already, and that’s not the objective of the program.

A & S: How has the increase in powerful storms affected the Aircraft Operations Center?

TeBeest: Certainly 2004 and 2005 were extremely busy years for us. We’re base funded for a particular number of hours every year. As we get more storms, that’s a priority mission, so it draws resources from other airborne efforts. It’s a balancing game to figure out where to best use our limited resources.

A & S: How are the tail Doppler radar on NOAA’s two P-3 Orions helping to improve the forecasts? 

TeBeest: We’ve had the instrument on the P-3s for some time. We’ve used it for research purposes to determine the structure of hurricanes. What we’re finding now is that the tail Doppler radar data is also useful in improving the intensity forecasts. We’re installing a similar instrument now on our [Gulfstream] G-4, which provides the high-level observation of the whole hurricane. When we fly through hurricanes, we have the lower level P-3s going through the eye wall and the upper-level G-4 that flies around the storm and determines the steering winds. Between those two [aircraft types], it gives us really a good idea of the structure of the storm.

A & S: How much of a beating do the P-3s take when they fly through hurricanes like Irene?

TeBeest: From an airplane standpoint, Irene was not severe. The larger storms like Katrina, the category 4 or 5 storms that have all the well-developed convection in the eye wall, those can be an interesting ride. Something like Irene was slow to get its act together. It was more of a ragged storm and spread out. There’s more turbulence throughout the length of the flight than what you get in a more developed storm, where all the turbulence and convection is really in the rain bands and eye wall. But the airplanes are sturdy aircraft and well proven.

A & S: Have there been any close calls, or is it all pretty safe and steady?

TeBeest: It’s pretty safe and steady. We’ve gotten to the point now where we have quite a bit of experience, many decades of doing this. Our airborne meteorologists and technicians who fly with us each have a role to play and we bring that together and we know where to penetrate an eye wall. We feel pretty confident we can continue to do it safely.

A & S: The P-3s were built in 1975 and 1976. Manufacturer Lockheed’s service analysis recommends either re-winging them or replacing them by 2018. Which do you think should happen?

TeBeest: We would have to look at whether we as an agency and a society value this capability. An observation from an inner eye wall is something we can’t get from a satellite. Rewinging the P-3s would allow us to continue that. The acquisition of a new aircraft is a huge number. To then instrument that aircraft with the right capabilities and instruments would be a significant [financial] effort.

A & S: What sort of background do NOAA pilots have?

TeBeest: We have internally produced pilots who start with the NOAA lighter aircraft and work their way up to a P-3. We also look at the U.S. Navy, which flies the P-3 for its own mission. Quite often we get inter-service transfers from the Navy, folks that are already qualified in the P-3. They come to us as commissioned officers and then we give them some experience in the storm environment and eventually qualify them as hurricane pilots. We get a lot of talent from both avenues.

A & S: What’s the training like?

TeBeest: Every month our pilots are training, it’s that type of job. For the P-3, the Navy is the manager for operating and training at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. We use those folks, their simulators, and their instructor-pilots along with our own instructor-pilots and flight engineers to maintain our proficiencies throughout the year.

A & S: The public expects NOAA to study hurricanes, but do the aircraft fly other missions that might surprise most of us?

TeBeest: Yes, we have many efforts throughout the year. We do a weather research mission with our P-3s out of Diego Garcia. It’s a multi-agency cooperative type of program involving the Navy, Army, NOAA, and National Science Foundation. We’ve also done a winter storms mission in January and February that looks at storms in the Pacific heading for the U.S. Those storms quite often are responsible for the mudslides and flooding you see on the West coast during the winter. We have a smaller fleet of twin-engine turboprops that have a number of uses. One works in the northern parts of the United States to determine the snow water equivalent of the snowpack so scientists can better forecast floods in the spring. We have several Twin Otter aircraft that do marine mammal observations of mammals on the endangered species list. NOAA has a mandate to track them and make sure we don’t lose them. 

A & S: Is it an adrenaline letdown for hurricane pilots to just observe snow?

TeBeest: You’d think so, and we do have pilots that move from one aircraft to another. Typically, each pilots flies two aircraft just to be efficient. The snow survey mission is actually quite interesting because it’s at 500 feet above the ground in the mountains. So it’s a very hands-on type of flying and not boring by any means. I’ve been with NOAA for 21 years and what I’ve found is the flying I’ve done here has really ruined me for any other type of flying. I have no real strong interest in flying from point A to point B and back again at altitude and autopilot. That’s of no interest to me and, I think, my peers as well.

A & S: What were some of your missions?

TeBeest: My last aircraft was primarily the P-3, so I flew a lot of storms. The last big year was 2005 and I flew storms like Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, which had the lowest pressure and highest wind speed ever measured airborne. Those were incredible opportunities. I’ve also flown the snow survey and air chemistry missions, and a number of things that we’ve gotten involved with on the lighter aircraft. It’s been a great flying opportunity and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I see a lot of different types of operations as I go through my career when we fly into other airports. And I’ve got to say, this is one of the most dynamic and most interesting flying [jobs] that I could have chosen.

A & S: With all your responsibilities, do you still have time to fly?

TeBeest: This particular job is no longer a flying job. Although I may get the chance to fly an occasional flight here and there, to be able to go out with the folks on the road like they do for three or four weeks is unrealistic and I wouldn’t be able to do that. But it’s certainly on my horizon and I like to think that I’ll get that opportunity [someday]. It’s not off my radar.

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