Tuesday September 12, 2017

Why 'Hurricane Hunters' fly into the eye of the storm

Air Force Reserve pilots Maj. Byron Hudgins, left, and Maj. Kendall Dunn, of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters, fly their WC-130J Super Hercules through Hurricane Irma, south of Florida, Sept. 10, 2017.

Air Force Reserve pilots Maj. Byron Hudgins, left, and Maj. Kendall Dunn, of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters, fly their WC-130J Super Hercules through Hurricane Irma, south of Florida, Sept. 10, 2017. (Corey Dickstein/Stars and Stripes )

Listen 17:31

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Maj. Kendall Dunn doesn't flee hurricanes — he flies directly into them, most recently when Irma, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the Caribbean and the U.S.

And it's thanks to him and other U.S. Air Force Reserve pilots that we're able to know so much about storms and predict where they're going.

'Imagine going through about a 200 mph (321 km/h) car wash and then getting pelted by cinder blocks.' - Maj. Kendall Dunn, Hurricane hunter

The turbulent life of the "Hurricane Hunter" involves flying straight towards the eye of the storm to collect data.

"Our major objective ... is what we call 'the fix' and that's the centre of the storm. Wind speed of zero is what we're looking for," Dunn tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Once we're in the eye of a storm, we continue to fly around until we find that centre of zero wind."

He explains that Irma's winds were hurricane strength even at 160 km out.

"As you get close to the eye wall, that intensity really builds within that last mile-and-a-half, two miles, and the winds at that altitude, at 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) were over 180 miles an hour (290 km an hour)."

As the pressure in the plane gets really intense, Dunn says, "Autopilot will kick off on you."

"[There's] not a lot of talking going on at that moment."

So what is it like to fly into the eye of the storm?

"Imagine going through about a 200 mph (321 km/h) car wash and then getting pelted by cinder blocks," Dunn says.

"A buddy of mine said it sounds like gorillas are jumping on the top of a vehicle."

Nose view

The nose of the WC-130J contains a powerful weather radar system. It is able to penetrate the intense precipitation of a hurricane in order to scan the layers of the storm. This allows the pilots to safely navigate the intense weather. (Kalin Mitchell/CBC)

The aircraft used on hurricane hunting missions, referred to as Super Hercules, is a WC-130J aircraft — "it's the Monster Truck of the airplane world."

"By the end of the season, the poor planes — they look pretty roughed up."

So what's next? Dunn says it's Jose, a storm expected to hit the Atlantic. But for now, he's happy to say he's taking a breather.

"To be honest with you, we're pretty tapped out around here right now. This is our busy time. We can fly up to three storms at once — Pacific storms and Atlantic storms."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Donya Ziaee, Pacinthe Mattar and Manusha Janakiram.