SPARTANBURG, S.C. (WSPA) – It’s not your typical plane ride.
Meteorologist Warren Madden once flew aboard hurricane hunter missions in a WC-130J aircraft that fly into the heart of tropical storms and hurricanes.
“I could see the lightning out the side window, but I couldn’t see out the front,” Madden said. “We finally made it through a very bumpy eyewall, burst out into the eye and the first words of the pilot over the intercom were ‘holy …’ not repeatable for television.”
“You could stick your head up against the side of the aircraft windows and look up, and there’s just this hole in the sky with stars and a full moon shining down at you,” he said. “It just struck me that this as an incredibly beautiful sight that few people in the world will ever get to experience.”
The plane can be in the air for 10 to 12 hours, six of those in and around the storm.
The flight paths will cross the storm’s center three or four times, punching through high winds.
This seems dangerous, but Lt. Col. Ivan DeRoche, a pilot for the Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron that operates the planes, said that safety is paramount.
“We do the opposite of general aviation, ” DeRoche said. “We turn and go toward the storm instead of turn away from it.”
“Over the years, we’ve developed good techniques, mitigation techniques, radar’s improved,” he said. “We’ve kind of learned how to hit the soft spots in the storm.”
Why is this so important?
Getting the exact location of a storm’s center and getting weather information from inside the storm both lead to more accurate forecasts of where and how strong the storm will be.
The crew will drop packages called dropsondes from the plane as they fly through the storms. This is a weather instrument package that can retrieve weather readings from flight level, anywhere between 5,000 and 10,0000 feet down to the surface.
Madden points out that this data can’t be collected any other way.
“People often ask, ‘Well don’t you have satellites this that the other thing?’ ‘Why are we still sending men and women into storms?’ Well, a satellite picture is great. It’s like an X-ray. Sometimes you need that exact information from the center, like a biopsy. These aircraft are our biopsy tools,” Madden said.
This weather data, and the forecast assistance it provides, end up making a huge impact in allowing us to let people know when they need to prepare for a storm.