In September of 1989, a NOAA hurricane hunter airplane intercepted Hurricane Hugo as it approached the Caribbean islands, just before Hugo's destructive rampage through the Caribbean and South Carolina. The crew of the airplane were the first people to encounter the mighty hurricane--and very nearly became its first victims. The mission remains the most harrowing flight ever conducted by the NOAA hurricane hunters. I served as flight meteorologist on that flight, and feel fortunate indeed to be able to tell the story.
Dr. Jeff Masters
Weather Underground, Inc.
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The hot tropical sun beats down on me as I cross the tarmac at Barbados's Grantly Adams field. I look to the northeast, scanning the sky for signs of Hurricane Hugo's outer cloud bands, but see only the puffy fair weather cumulus clouds typical of a tropical summer morning. I continue to the waiting aircraft. The flight engineers and maintenance crew are already hard at work, fueling the airplane and completing their pre-flight inspections. I climb the ladder and step into one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) P-3 Orion "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft--NOAA 42, affectionately called "The Princess", my partner in many memorable missions.
The interior of the aircraft buzzes with activity. Our electronic engineers stride about, powering up computers, checking scientific instruments, and tinkering with delicate circuit boards. Five scientists from NOAA's Hurricane Research Division huddle together, pointing at charts spread out over a table, and talk intently about today's mission--the Hurricane Energetics Experiment, designed to study the mechanisms responsible for hurricane intensification. I cut through the crowd and make my way to the flight director's station, located just behind the cockpit. Sitting down, I dig out the essential items for today's flight--aviation charts, flight plan, instrument calibration tables, today's passenger roster.
With practiced efficiency, I power on the computer monitors, radar displays, and scientific instrumentation located at my station, then sit down and query the on-board main computer about the status of each of the approximately 50 meteorological instruments we carry. My preliminary check shows everything working as expected, so I proceed with my next task--checking with each crew member to determine their state of readiness. I step into the cockpit and greet the cockpit crew.
Lowell Genzlinger is Aircraft Commander, a veteran of 249 hurricane eye penetrations. There is no better pilot in the business. My pre-flight tension wanes just a bit, seeing him in the cockpit, in charge. We work well together, having just completed a three month-long winter storm project in Maine.
Co-pilot is Gerry McKim, a relative newcomer to hurricane flying, but a Navy P-3 pilot for 20 years before coming to NOAA. This is his second year flying hurricanes. He is working towards becoming an aircraft commander, and will be the pilot during today' s eye penetrations.
Rounding out the flight crew is flight engineer Steve Wade, also in just his second year of hurricane flying. His job is to monitor engine performance, fuel consumption, and other critical aircraft functions.
The cockpit crew have no complications to report, so I proceed to the middle of the aircraft to confer with our electronic engineers. They have the demanding task of keeping the three radars, three computers, and over 50 scientific and navigation instruments running on an airplane pounded by the worst weather on the planet. They do a phenomenal job keeping the instruments and data collection hardware (which they custom designed themselves) running, and I never cease to be amazed at their ability to rapidly trouble-shoot and fix problems during missions.
Veterans Alan Goldstein and Terry Schricker hold down the fort today, along with newcomer Neal Rain. They are having some problems with the lower fuselage radar, but the rest of their systems are go. Terry thinks he can have things working well enough by take-off, so I promise to check back in a few minutes.
I continue my rounds, checking with navigator Sean White and radio operator Tom Nunn. They report no problems, so I head to the back of the aircraft where the five mission scientists work on last minute details of the flight plan.
The science team is a veritable "Who's Who" in the science of hurricane research. The director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division (and future head of the National Hurricane Center), Bob Burpee, leads the science team. The rest of the team consists of Frank Marks, Jr., Hugh Willoughby, Pete Black, and Peter Dodge. Frank is lead mission scientist today.
We converse briefly about today's mission, a two-aircraft research mission into newly-formed Hurricane Hugo. The high altitude aircraft, NOAA 43, will fly at 20,000 feet and circle the periphery of the storm, and will study the hurricane's large scale environment. Our aircraft, NOAA 42, will repeatedly penetrate the eye at the lowest safe altitude, and gather detailed information on the low-level storm environment and air-sea interaction. No hurricane hunter aircraft have penetrated the storm yet--we will be the first humans to see Hurricane Hugo!
I feel excited and nervous about our upcoming flight--the view inside the eye of a mature hurricane's eye at low altitude is an incredibly spectacular sight. The only catch is that in order to get there, we must fly directly through the hurricane's strongest winds and most violent turbulence--the dangerous eyewall.
Today, we are pushing the limits of safe hurricane flying by going into the eyewall at 1,500 feet, the altitude where the hurricane's winds and turbulence are at their worst. It is my prime job as flight director to ensure the safety of the mission from a meteorological perspective, and call for a climb to a higher, safer altitude if I judge that the storm is too dangerous. Frank and I agree to determine what altitude we will penetrate the storm at once we get airborne and get a good look at Hugo with our weather radars.
The ground crew is not quite done fueling the airplane, so I take the time to talk to our guest from Barbados. Today's victim is Janice Griffith, a reporter with the Barbados Sun newspaper. My boss, Jim McFadden, along for the ride today as an observer, walks over to join in the conversation. Janice has just received her pre-flight safety briefing from Lowell, the Aircraft Commander. The briefing covered important items like how to use the life preservers and life rafts, how to fasten the heavy duty lap and shoulder belts needed during turbulent flight, and where the barf bags are located.
She looks wide-eyed and excited. No doubt, though, she is wondering about the wisdom of hopping a ride with a band of nuts that would deliberately fly into nature's most ferocious storms.
"Where are the parachutes?" she asks, when Lowell finishes the briefing and asks her if she has any questions.
Lowell and Jim and I look at each other, and smile. Same old question.
"We don't carry parachutes," Lowell answers. "Where we're going, a parachute won't do you any good."
Jim cheers her up by saying, "Hey, it can be dangerous, but we haven't lost an airplane yet, in over 30 years of flying."
While we talk, ground crew chief Burt Kinney appears beside me and interrupts.
"Hey, we're all fueled up and ready to go down there. You got the pink sheet?"
"Right here!" I reply, holding out my clipboard with the pink roster sheet attached to it. "Hang on, let me do a final body count, and check with Alan and Terry one more time."
I trot over to the radar station and check with Terry and Alan.
"You guys ready?" I ask.
"Let's go!" replies Terry. "We've got the radar working."
"Excellent!" I reply. Quickly, I stride to the front of the aircraft, then to the back, counting each person as I go, making sure 16 people are on board. When I reach the sixteenth person (myself!), I head over to the door where Burt awaits.
"Sixteen souls, and no stragglers," I say, handing the pink roster sheet to him. Should we not return, the pink sheet will be used to notify our next of kin. I feel a queasy sense of anxiety, as I always do, when I see Burt disappear down the ladder with the pink sheet clutched in his hand.
Terry hauls up the ladder, shuts the door, locks it down, and gives me a thumbs up. Time to go. The first people to see Hurricane Hugo, and at low altitude! Excitement, tempered by an undercurrent of anxiety, energizes me as I stride up to the cockpit. I step in, hold up a thumb to Lowell, Gerry, and Steve.
"OK, the door is shut and the crew is ready to go!" I yell.
"Roger! Prepare to start engines!" replies Lowell.
I take my seat, fasten my seat belt, don my headset, and prepare for takeoff.
At last, take off. The familiar roar of the engines shake the aircraft as the thrust of take off pushes me back into my seat. The lush greenery of Barbados rushes past, then falls away as the big plane lumbers into the air. We cross the coast, the spectacular turquoise-blue waters of the Caribbean sparkling up at us in the intense tropical sunshine. The tranquillity and beauty of the scene make it difficult to believe a huge, destructive hurricane lurks a mere hour's flight away.
We climb to 10,000 feet and level off, heading northeast. I check the lower fuselage radar display. The bright reds and yellows of Hugo's outermost spiral rain bands have already appeared. It is a huge storm, over 400 miles in diameter.
"Look at that radar presentation!" I exclaim over the intercom.
"Yeah, that's a pretty good looking storm," replies Frank Marks, lead scientist. "Looks like it has its act together."
Radar reflectivity plot of Hugo from the lower fuselage radar.
"Hey Jeff, what kind of track do you want?" interrupts Gerry, from the cockpit.
"Let's go with a track of oh-seven-oh until we start getting near the outer spiral band," I reply.
"Turning to oh-seven-oh!" says Gerry.
Gerry banks the airplane to bring us to a heading of oh-seven-oh degrees, and levels us out. I begin studying the lower fuselage radar display to gauge Hugo's intensity and position in more detail. Suddenly, a blank screen meets my gaze.
"We just lost the radar system," I hear electronic engineer Al Goldstein say over the intercom, before I have a chance to report the problem. "Terry's got the circuit boards pulled, and we're checking things out."
This is not good. Loss of the radar slung under the lower fuselage and the Doppler radar located in the tail severely limits our ability to estimate the strength of the hurricane and determine a safe altitude to fly at. Moreover, the radar data is critical to the experiment we are conducting. The science team may want to delay the mission while repairs happen. I unbuckle my seat belt and walk to the rear of the aircraft, where the scientists are already discussing the problem.
"Frank, do you want to orbit here while Al and Terry work on the radar?" I yell over the noise of the engines, when I arrive.
"No, let's hold this heading and see if they can get it fixed while we ferry to the storm," Frank replies. "Terry and Alan can do some pretty amazing repair jobs--I'm betting they can get it fixed soon. We'll re-evaluate in about 20 minutes."
Nodding, I head back up front, take my seat, and inform the crew of the plan. I think it is a wise one--Terry and Alan are the best in the business. Odds are, they will get things fixed in time to perform the entire mission as planned. We drone on towards the now-invisible storm.
As the next 20 minutes pass, I check my data displays, snap a few photographs out my window of the distant storm clouds, and wait restlessly for radar display to reappear. It is an uncomfortable feeling, flying blind towards a huge hurricane of unknown intensity. We are the first hurricane hunter airplane to intercept the storm, so we have only satellite estimates of how strong the hurricane is--and satellite estimates are notoriously unreliable. This is why the National Hurricane Center relies heavily on the information provided by hurricane hunter aircraft to issue accurate hurricane forecasts and warnings. An Air Force airplane is scheduled to fly a reconnaissance mission today, but we will beat it there.
Finally, just five minutes from our planned descent point and only fifteen minutes from Hugo's first spiral band, the radar display flickers back on.
"It's back--for now," Alan tersely informs us.
"Great work, Alan and Terry!" responds Frank Marks.
Immediately, I lean in close to my screen and study the newly restored radar display. Hugo has an impressive symmetry, with two major spiral bands and a 12-mile diameter eye--pretty tight by hurricane standards, and difficult to orbit inside should we get in trouble and need to stay in the eye. I've been in several other hurricanes with eyes this small, and both were rough, intense storms undergoing rapid deepening. Hugo may be doing the same. I look closely at the eyewall--a tight ring of bright orange and red echoes surrounding the eye. Checking the echo intensity scale at the side of the display, I find that the radar information looks consistent with this morning's satellite estimates of Hugo's intensity--winds of 130 mph and a central pressure of 950 millibars, a strong category three storm on a scale of one to five.
My examination of the radar display is fairly hurried, and I fail to notice that the strongest echos from the radar display are off scale. Typically, one of us takes the time during the ferry to a hurricane to properly scale the radar reflectivities, but no one has done so this time, because of radar system's failure during approach.
Frank appears at my station, and I remove my headset to talk.
"Looks like an impressive storm!" He shouts above the noise of the four engines. "We need to do the mission at an altitude that's low, but no so low that its real rough and we get bad radar data."
"Well, Hugo's definitely getting his act together," I shout back. "Do you still want to try it at 1,500 feet?"
"Well, we got away with it in Hurricane Gabrielle last week, and Hugo looks like it's about the same strength. Let's try the first penetration at 1,500, and if it's too rough, we'll climb to 5,000," he answers.
"OK, 1,500 it is!" I yell back. As Frank disappears back into the cockpit to take the chief scientist's seat, I get on the intercom.
"Lowell, they want to go in at 1,500 feet. How do you feel about that?" I sound and feel nervous about this choice.
"Fifteen hundred, hey?" he responds. I can tell by his tone of voice he feels none too comfortable with this choice, either. "I'd be happier at 5,000."
"Yeah, me too. But we got away with it last week in Gabrielle, and if it's rough on the first penetration, we can do the rest of the mission at 5,000."
"All right," sighs Lowell. "We'll take her down to 1,500 and see how it goes. Are you happy with this track?"
"Looks OK for now, we may want to adjust a bit when we get down to 1,500. Standby, we're almost at our descent point."
I wait a minute until we arrive at our planned descent point, then give the command, "OK, let's descend to 1,500 feet at 1,000 feet per minute."
"All right, here we go!" replies Lowell.
The big plane noses down into its descent. My stomach flutters from the brief sensation of weightlessness--and the knowledge that we are now only a few minutes away from our rendezvous with the eye of Hurricane Hugo, at 1,500 feet!
I look out my window, and watch the ocean grow closer. Powerful wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph drive crescent-shaped white-capped waves over the ocean surface. A thin haze of high cirrus clouds dims the sun; the water sparkles a dull blue color. We cross over several hurricane feeder bands--tall heaps of piled cumulus clouds arranged in picturesque lines that spiral into the eyewall. Ahead, the first major spiral band--an ominous dark mass of forbidding cumulonimbus clouds--blocks our path.
"OK, leveling out at 1,500 feet," calls out Lowell. "How does this track look?"
I study the radar display and wind readings for a moment and respond, "Let's hold this track through this spiral band, and see what things look like when we pop out on the other side."
"OK, sounds good," he replies. "We're getting pretty close now, time to button things up."
"SET CONDITION ONE!" Lowell's voice crackles over the aircraft's loudspeakers and intercom. When announced by the Aircraft Commander, Condition One requires all hands to return to their seats and prepare for turbulence. Throughout the airplane, the crew stashes away flight bags, clip boards, and other loose items that could turn into dangerous missiles in severe turbulence. I buckle my heavy-duty seat belt, but don't bother with the shoulder harness. The turbulence in a spiral band is never too bad. I give a thumbs up to navigator Sean White across the aisle from me.
Twilight falls. Thick grey clouds engulf us. The winds jump to 85 mph. Minor turbulent wind gusts bounce and bump the aircraft, and a new sound joins the ever-present roar of the engines--the clatter of heavy rain lashing the fuselage.
Two minutes later, the sky lightens and the turbulence suddenly stops. We emerge from the spiral band into the clear. A typical spiral band penetration, no big deal. I note the position and strength of the spiral band winds in my log, then turn my attention to the wind readings. The wind has dropped to 50 mph, with a slight shift in direction. Good. With a wind this low between the spiral band and eyewall, it is unlikely that Hugo is more than a category three storm. I check the lower fuselage radar display again. Look at that eyewall! The glowing red donut of the eyewall is closer, only ten minutes away now, and much more impressive. I suppress an urge to call for a climb to 5,000 feet.
I adjust my radar display to zoom in on the eye. The bright oranges and reds of the eyewall lie before us, growing closer and more ominous with each sweep of the radar. The eyewall looks frightening, impenetrable, now just seven minutes away. I suppress another urge to chicken out and order a climb to 5,000 feet. The intercom is silent, but I feel the unspoken tension of the crew. I wait for either Frank or Lowell to order a climb to 5,000 feet. Neither of them do.
Three minutes from the eyewall, now, still time to order a climb to 5,000 feet. I check my wind readings. Winds are well below hurricane force--a mere 60 mph. This is remarkably low, so close to the eyewall. Hugo may not even be a category three storm! I make my final decision not to order a climb to 5,000 feet. We're going in at 1,500! I look out my window at the approaching eyewall, a tall dark wall of forbidding thunderstorm clouds. "Foolish mistake!" I imagine the threatening voice of Hurricane Hugo saying to me.
Into the Eyewall
We hit the eyewall. Darkness falls. Powerful gusts of winds tear at the aircraft, slamming us from side to side. Torrential rains hammer the airplane. Through my rain-streaked window, I watch the left wingtip flex down a meter, then up a meter, then down two meters through the gloomy dark-grey twilight. My stomach is clenched into a tight knot. The ride is choppy, uncomfortable.
I grab the computer console with both hands, trying to steady my vision on the blurred computer readouts. I don't like what I see. The winds are rising too quickly, the pressure falling too fast. Hugo is far more powerful than expected. The aircraft lurches and bucks in severe turbulence.
Thirty seconds in, a minute and a half to go. The turbulence grows worse, second only to the incredible turbulence we encountered in Hurricane Emily in 1987 as it made landfall on the mountains of Hispanolia. During that flight, we hit the highest G forces ever encountered by our P-3.s in a hurricane--three G's--and had to abort the flight when the extreme turbulence caused a dangerous resonant vibration in the wings.
Hugo is stronger than Emily. I am very concerned. We should not be at 1,500 feet!
I fumble for the intercom switch, find it. "Winds are 135 mph, surface pressure 960 millibars," I say. "Hugo's at least a category 4."
Frank breaks in. "Lowell, Jeff, this ride is way too rough! Let's climb to 5,000 when we finish this penetration."
"Roger!" is Lowell's terse reply. Both he and Gerry must wrestle with the controls of the airplane. The turbulence is so violent that one pilot alone cannot stay in control. There is no possibility of climbing now; the pilots need the full power of the engines just to keep the airplane flying straight and level.
One minute in, one minute to go. The intercom goes silent as everyone hangs on and the pilots concentrate on getting us through the eyewall. I watch the winds and the track of the aircraft to ensure we are on course to the eye. Gerry does a great job fighting off the turbulence and keeping the airplane on track. I don't need to order any course corrections. Winds are now 155 mph, still rising. Pressure 955 millibars, dropping fast. The turbulence grows extreme. Hugo is almost a category five hurricane.
A fierce updraft wrenches the airplane, slams us into our seats with twice the force of gravity. Seconds later, we dangle weightless as a stomach-wrenching downdraft slams us downward. Clipboards, headsets, and gear bags spill loose and slide across the cabin floor.
Another updraft, much stronger, grabs the aircraft. I regret forgetting to fasten my shoulder harness, as I struggle to keep from bashing into the computer console. Seconds later, a huge downdraft blasts us, hurling the loosened gear against walls and floor. Gerry and Lowell are barely in control of the aircraft. Grimly, I hang on to my console against the violent turbulence and watch the numbers. A 20 mph updraft. A 22 mph downdraft. Sustained winds now 185 mph, gusting to 196 mph. Pressure plummeting, down to 930 millibars. Hugo is a category five hurricane, and we are in the eyewall at 1500 feet! One strong downdraft has the power to send us plunging into the ocean. We have no options other than to gut it out and make it to the eye, where we can climb to a safer altitude.
A minute and a half gone, half a minute to go. A colossal 45 mph updraft seizes the airplane. A shower of loose gear flies through the cabin as the airplane lurches violently. Gerry fights the updraft off, keeps the airplane level and headed towards the eye. We're almost there!
"Looks like it's lightening up out there!" Lowell's relieved voice breaks the intense silence. Sure enough, the sky lightens, the clouds thin, the rain abates. We are at the edge of the eyewall. A big smile of jubilation erases my anxious frown. We got away with a penetration at 1,500 feet in a category five storm!
Thick dark clouds suddenly envelop the aircraft. A titanic fist of wind, three times the force of gravity, smashes us. I am thrown into the computer console, bounce off, and for one terrifying instant find myself looking DOWN at a precipitous angle at Sean across the aisle from me.
A second massive jolt rocks the aircraft. Gear loosened by the previous turbulence flies about the inside the aircraft, bouncing off walls, ceiling, and crew members. Next to Terry Schricker, our 200-pound life raft breaks loose and hurtles into the ceiling. Neil Rain fends off screwdrivers, wrenches, and his airborne toolbox with his arms. The locked drawers in the galley rip open, and a cooler loaded with soft drink cans explodes into the air, showering Alan Goldstein with ice and 12-ounce cans. Hugh Willoughby watches as invisible fingers pry loose his portable computer from its mounting, and hurl it into the ceiling, ripping a gash in the tough ceiling fabric. At the radar station, Peter Dodge shields himself and the Barbados reporter from two flying briefcases. Next to them, Bob Burpee grabs two airborne boxes of computer tapes, but has no more hands to grab a third box of tapes that smashes against the ceiling, sending the tapes caroming through the cabin.
A third terrific blow, almost six times the force of gravity, staggers the airplane. Clip boards, flight bags, and headsets sail past my head as I am hurled into the console. Terrible thundering crashing sounds boom through the cabin; I hear crew members crying out. I scream inwardly. "This is what it feels like to die in battle", I think. We are going down. The final moments of the five hurricane hunter missions that never returned must have been like this.
The aircraft lurches out of control into a hard right bank. We plunge towards the ocean, our number three engine in flames. Debris hangs from the number four engine.
The turbulence suddenly stops. The clouds part. The darkness lifts. We fall into the eye of Hurricane Hugo.
The Eye of Hugo
WE'VE GOT FIRE COMING OUT OF NUMBER THREE!" Terry's urgent cry shatters the stunned silence on the intercom.
"And I see something hanging from number four," adds Sean, his voice sounding strangely calm.
For several eternal terrifying seconds, I watch the massive, white-frothed waves below us grow huge and close. I wait for impact, praying for survival. With two engines damaged, both on the same wing, I know that our odds are not good.
But my prayers are answered by the cool, professional reaction of the cockpit crew. Gerry snaps us up out of the right-rolling dive, a perilous 880 feet from the water. Steve Wade hits the kill switch on engine number three, and the 30-foot long flames shooting out of it die as the flow of fuel chokes off. Lowell and Frank take charge of keeping us in the eye, scanning the inside to size up where our path should take us.
A dark mass of clouds lies directly ahead, seconds away. Is it the eyewall? Or merely harmless low scud in the eye? There is no time think, no time to plan the best flight path. We must turn now to avoid the clouds. If we hit the eyewall again at this altitude, the storm will surely kill us. We must stay in the eye.
"It's clear to the right!" Lowell shouts out. Immediately, Gerry throws us into a hard right roll. I look at my radar display, and quickly compute our position. A right turn is the wrong choice! We popped into the eye off-center, on its right side, and now must trace out an almost impossibly tight four-mile diameter circle to stay in the eye. The dark clouds that Gerry turned us from were merely harmless low level scud in the eye. We should have turned left! It is too late to call for a course change, though. We are committed to this turn.
Tense seconds pass. I watch the wind speed indicator as the winds slowly increase--30 mph, 40 mph, 50 mph. The eyewall grows closer, a huge ominous wall of seething dark clouds spinning past my window. Gerry has us banked over as far as he dares, at a 30 degree angle. The airplane cannot sustain a tighter turn without its number three engine.
I can see only a blurred, white wall of clouds, frighteningly close, out my window. I lean out into the aisle to see the view out the cockpit window. The view is the same--a white wall of turbulent clouds spinning by at a dizzying speed. I see Frank standing up, craning his head towards the right upper window, straining to see where we are headed. "Keep on coming!" I hear him call out to the pilots. The left wingtip is now just a few hundred feet from the eyewall.
A fist of clouds protrudes out from the eyewall, blocking our path. We penetrate. Turbulence rocks the aircraft. The winds jump to 75 mph, hurricane force. We are in the eyewall. Gerry banks us even harder right, a 35 degree roll. We are dangerously close to stalling. An eternal few seconds later, we emerge into the eye again.
"Keep on coming!" I hear Frank say, once again.
Again, eyewall clouds grab at the airplane, shaking us with frightening turbulence. Another eternity later, we pop out in the clear as Gerry maneuvers us out of the clouds, keeping us barely within the eye. We are now fast approaching the deadly part of the eyewall where we originally entered the eye. Our turn is nearly complete.
"That's it, you've got it!" I hear Frank exclaim.
Gerry relaxes the steep bank, and heads us into the center of the eye. A few seconds later, he puts us into a left roll that will keep us comfortably in the eye for as long as we want to circle. He brings the nose of the aircraft up, and we begin a steady spiraling climb. The immediate danger is past.
Awesome, Terrifying, Supernatural
I look out my window, and behold the eye of Hurricane Hugo in its full fury. It is awesome, terrifying, supernatural. the eyewall, a towering prison of blinding-white, boiling, virulent clouds, rings us on all sides. We are so low that I can see beneath the ragged bottom edge of the eyewall clouds, where Hugo's 160 mph surface winds whip the ocean surface into a greenish-white blur. Below us, the ocean churns in a frightening chaotic frenzy of colliding 50-foot high waves.
I watch with fascinated dread as white masses of tortured clouds bulge in and out along the eyewall, the whole structure slowly rotating around us.
"You are not welcome here," I imagine the fearsome voice of Hurricane Hugo saying, "and I may well destroy you for your insolence, for you must penetrate my eyewall one more time to escape." I angrily curse myself for failing my primary duty, ensuring the safety of the mission from a meteorological perspective. My job today is done. It is now up to Gerry and Lowell to get us out of the crisis I got us into.
Lowell's voice comes on the intercom: "OK, we're going to circle in the eye as long as we can and climb to our maximum altitude before we attempt to punch out through the eyewall. Is anyone injured back there?"
Jim McFadden's shaken voice responds, "We're all OK back here, but the cabin is a mess!"
"All right," Lowell continues, "Number three engine is shut down, and it looks like we got the fire fully extinguished. Can anyone back there take a good look at number four and tell us what it looks like?"
Across the aisle from me, Sean looks out his window and responds, "It looks like it might be a dislodged de-icing boot."
"Well, let's hope it doesn't tear of and get caught in the propeller," says Lowell. "We need to lighten the plane up as much as possible to gain altitude, so we'll be dumping fuel. I'll want all communications equipment and electrical gear that could cause a spark powered off."
A new voice, that of Dave Turner, commander of NOAA 43, breaks in: "NOAA 42, this is NOAA 43, come in."
"Dave, we can't talk now!" cries Lowell. "We've got a serious emergency on board! We're in the eye with only three engines, have damage to another, and are preparing to dump fuel."
"Oh my!" says Dave. There is a pause as the seriousness of our situation sinks in. "Okay, we'll come into the eye and look out for you. I'll also advise the Air Force airplane of your situation, they are closer to the eye than we are."
"Thanks Dave, we're going to dump fuel now, so this will be our last communication for about 15 minutes. We'll give you a call when we're finished. Please advise Miami of our situation. Four-two out."
"Good luck, four-two! Four-three out."
Everyone on NOAA 43, I know, is feeling tremendous concern and empathy for our plight. They know the hazards of hurricane hunting. Now, some of their own are living a hurricane hunter's nightmare.
I leave my seat, and step into the cockpit to confer with Lowell. Pete Black is there, too.
"So what's the plan, Lowell?" I ask.
"We've got to stay in the eye and lighten the aircraft up as much as possible," Lowell responds. He does not look up from the controls as he talks. He sounds very worried, but is focused, in command. I look across the cockpit at Gerry. He is concentrating intensely on flying, keeping the airplane safely within the eye and steadily climbing. Between Lowell and Gerry, flight engineer Steve Wade intently eyes the engine gauges, and keeps a particularly close eye on the #4 engine's temperature gauge, which hovers near the red zone.
"The cockpit G-meter shows we took five and half G's up and three and half G's down," continues Lowell, now sounding really concerned. "The P-3 is only rated to plus three and minus two G's, so we may have some serious structural damage. We'll have to climb as high as we can and find a part of the eyewall to exit through with a minimum of turbulence."
"Five and half G's!" I exclaim, looking at Pete in amazement and trepidation. No hurricane hunter aircraft has ever taken more than three G's. We are lucky to be alive.
A sudden thought comes to mind. I turn to Pete.
"Hey Pete! How many AXBTs do we have on board, and how much do they weigh apiece?" For this mission, we had planned to drop a bunch of Air Expendable Bathythermographs (AXBTs), which radio back measurements of water temperature and ocean current speed.
Pete looks at me, and realizes what I have in mind.
"Twenty-two, and they weigh 30 pounds apiece!" he answers enthusiastically.
"Let's chuck 'em overboard, that'll lighten us up another 660 pounds!" I say.
"Every bit will help!" adds Lowell. He contacts Terry over the intercom and gives the order to launch all the AXBTs. Over the next few minutes, Terry fires all 22 of the probes into the ocean.
While Terry launches the AXBTs, Alan works to power down all the communications and electrical equipment that could potentially cause a spark and ignite the fuel. When we're done, the only equipment running are the essential Inertial Navigation Units, and the engines themselves. Alan also leaves on the main data computer to collect data, with the hope of being alive someday to analyze it.
"Lowell, we're ready back here for fuel dumping," says Alan over the intercom. "Everything is powered down."
"Roger, we'll begin dumping now," replies Lowell.
I watch as a stream of jet fuel squirts out into the air through a three inch wide tube slung under the left wing. It will take about 15 minutes to dump 15,000 of our 50,000 pounds of fuel. As we dump fuel, Gerry will keep us steadily climbing.
I unfasten my seat belt and walk to the back of the aircraft. I take one look down the aisle, and gawk in amazement. The inside of the airplane is trashed. Jim McFadden is there, organizing clean up efforts.
"So no one back here got hurt?" I ask him. As I look in his eyes I see my thoughts and fears mirrored. We both know these may be our last minutes left to live.
He shakes his head, "No, and it's a damn miracle, too. Look at the life raft!" I look to where he motions. Sitting in the center of the aisle is our 200-pound life raft. Jim points to a one-inch dent in the inch-thick steel handrail that runs the length of the ceiling. "The raft hit the ceiling so hard, it put that dent in the handrail. We're lucky no one got killed by the thing!"
I survey the scene of destruction with awe and dismay. No NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft has ever been trashed like this. I step over the life raft, a portable computer with a snarled mass of computer paper bunched around it, and a pile of computer tapes, and survey the galley. It is piled knee-high with an amazing collection of trash, food, utensils, and other gear. The contents of our toilet grace the floor. Alan stands there, surveying the mess.
"Who had the honor of sitting back here?" I ask him.
"I did," he answers gloomily. "The locks failed on all of the drawers back here. It was all I could do to fend off all the soda cans that came flying out of the cooler at me."
I help Jim, Alan, and other crew members pick up the debris and strap things down. It is important to get all the loose gear stowed away, so we don't have a repeat of the dangerous flying missile experience during our next penetration. As we work, we talk about the incredible turbulence we just survived. We talk about the damage to the engines. We don't talk about our odds of survival. When I look anyone in the eye, I see the same sick fear, the same sort of deadly scenarios playing through their minds that are playing through mine: We penetrate the eyewall. Another engine fails. We ditch into the raging seas below. We deploy our life raft, and die one by one as Hugo's 50-foot waves and 160 mph winds capsize our boat and send us to a watery doom.
We put things away as best we can. The things we can't figure out what to do with, we stuff into the bathroom and close and lock the door. We sweat as we work. The air conditioning has been turned off for the fuel dumping operation, and the cabin temperature is 85 degrees.
I return to my seat and look out at the eyewall of Hugo again. It is awesome, fearsome, impenetrable. I feel trapped, helpless, and despondent. To cheer myself up, I snap a series of photographs of the eyewall, hoping that someday I will be able to use them to relate the incredible story of the near-disastrous first encounter with Hurricane Hugo.
The flow of fuel out the fuel dumping pipe slows to a trickle, then stops. I hear Gerry's voice over the intercom. "Okay, we're all done dumping fuel. You can turn back on any equipment you turned off."
Terry and Alan turn the communications equipment back on, and Lowell immediately contacts the TEAL 57, the Air Force C-130 reconnaissance airplane sent into the storm by the National Hurricane Center to provide information on Hugo's position and intensity.
"NOAA 42, this is TEAL 57," radios the voice of Lieutenant Commander Terry Self, aircraft commander of TEAL 57, and veteran of 10 years of hurricane flying. "NOAA 43 has advised us of your situation. Can you give us your position and altitude, and update us on your status?"
"Roger," relies Lowell. "We are circling the eye in a left orbit at 5,000 feet. We've lost the number three engine, and have damage to the number four engine. We'd like you to come fly by and take a look at our number four engine, and inspect us for any other damage we can't see."
"Sure thing, NOAA 42," says Self. "We'll penetrate the west eyewall and come down and have a look at you. TEAL 57 out."
"Ten-four. Thanks, TEAL 57! NOAA 42 out."
The next five minutes we wait anxiously for the Air Force airplane to penetrate the eyewall. They are definitely sticking their necks out for us--I have never heard of an Air Force airplane penetrating an intense hurricane at an altitude less than 10,000 feet. Only the foolish NOAA airplanes risk going in hurricanes at altitudes below 10,000 feet! Finally, the radio crackles back to life with the voice of Commander Self.
"NOAA 42, we are in the eye. We got a terrific pounding going through the west eyewall coming in, but are still in one piece!"
My heart sinks at this news. What chance did we have of making it through the eyewall with only three engines?
"We'll come take a look at you now," continues Self. "What is your current position and heading?"
Lowell gives him our current position and heading, and the two aircraft commanders proceed to coordinate a close fly-by in the eye of Hugo. Fly-bys are dangerous operations in the best of conditions; great caution must be exercised to avoid a mid-air collision. The fact we are circling in the tight and shrinking eye of a category five hurricane makes this an extremely difficult and dangerous maneuver.
But these pilots are the best in the business. They pull off the fly-by, and I watch as TEAL 57 zooms past overhead. I see the faces of TEAL 57's crew looking out the window, and I find myself forlornly wishing I am one of them.
"NOAA 42," reports Self, "we got a good look at your top side and number four engine. There is no obvious damage, other than what appears to be a dislodged de-icing boot hanging from the number four engine. Would you like us to make another pass underneath you to check out the underside of your aircraft?"
"Roger, TEAL 57, let's coordinate another pass so you look at our underside. Thanks!" responds Lowell.
A few minutes later, our pilots pull off another difficult fly by, and TEAL 57 zooms past underneath us.
"NOAA 42, we didn't see any visible damage on the second pass," reports Self. "We're going to exit the eye now through the east eyewall and see how rough it is for you over there. We'll continue penetrating the eyewall until we find a soft spot for you."
"Roger TEAL 57, that'd be greatly appreciated!" replies Lowell.
I say a huge silent THANK YOU to the brave crew of TEAL 57. They are risking their lives for us. The extreme turbulence in Hugo's eyewall almost killed us, but they are willing to brave it multiple times in order to find us safe passage.
They leave their comm link open as they penetrate, and we listen in as Hugo's awesome winds give them a terrible beating.
"Better not try the east eyewall!" Self ruefully informs us, after they finish their penetration. "We'll circle around to the south now, and come into the eye through the south eyewall."
Gerry keeps us circling the eye, but has now pushed us as high as our three engines will take us. We are at 7,000 feet. Any further attempts to climb bring the temperature needle on the overtaxed number four engine into the dangerous red zone. We must exit Hugo's eye at 7,000 feet.
Dave Turner, aircraft commander of NOAA 43, gives us a call.
"NOAA 42, this is NOAA 43. We've just penetrated the eye at 15,000 feet through the west eyewall, and now have sight of you. If can make it up to 15,000, the ride through isn't too bad!"
"Thanks for coming in to check on us!" Lowell replies. "But it looks like we are now at our maximum altitude. We'll have to exit the eye at 7,000 feet. The Air Force airplane is doing penetrations at our altitude to try and find us a soft spot."
"OK, we'll just stay up here at 15,000 and look after you. Four-three out."
As I sit at my station, staring out the window and brooding, my boss Jim McFadden walks up and addresses me:
"I've been talking to NHC on the radio, and they want a vortex report," he says.
I turn to look at him, and angrily reply, "What does it matter? They have the center fix from the Air Force airplane, and all our data will tell them is that it's a category five storm that will destroy whatever it hits." I am irrational, scared, and furious at myself for getting us into this situation.
Jim glowers at me, and I finally mutter acquiescence and fill out the form for the Hurricane Center on Hugo's position, maximum winds, and other data. I walk back to Tom Nunn, the radio operator, and hand him the report. He will radio the data back to Miami.
Sitting next to Tom, I see the reporter from Barbados. I meet her wide-eyed, alarmed gaze, and think I should smile to reassure her, but don't have it in me. She is probably the least frightened among us. For all she knows, this situation is routine on hurricane flights!
I return to my seat to look out on the eyewall and brood some more, and wait for the next penetration of TEAL 57.
A few minutes later, the intercom crackles to life again with the voice of Commander Self.
"NOAA 42, the south eyewall was just as bad as the east eyewall. We're going to take our center fix now and exit through the northeast eyewall, we'll let you know how it goes."
"Roger, TEAL 57, thank you," responded Lowell. "We're going to have to leave the eye soon, though. We are getting low on fuel."
"Ten-four, NOAA 42, we'll try and find you a soft spot."
I look out the window at the fearsome, roiling eyewall of Hugo, hoping it won't be my last sight. We will have to leave the eye in just a few more minutes, regardless of whether the Air Force airplane can find a soft spot. I say a prayer for our safety and the Air Force airplane's crew. I check the area around my station, making sure everything is securely stowed away. I wait. We have been in the eye of Hugo almost an hour.
Finally, the intercom comes to life again.
"NOAA 42, this is TEAL 57. We have just penetrated the northeast eyewall, and it wasn't too bad! You might want to give it a try. If you look on your radar display, you should be able to see where a weakness has developed in the northeast eyewall."
I look over at my radar display. Sure enough, an area of weaker echoes has developed in a narrow section of the northeast eyewall. If we can hit the soft spot just right, the ride might not be too rough. I wonder how long it will take us to maneuver to get lined up for a shot at it.
Not long, it turns out. Gerry's voice, terse and determined, comes in over the intercom:
"Okay, we're going to follow the Air Force airplane out now. Make sure all gear is stowed away. Set Condition One!"
The klaxon sounds overhead, warning of upcoming turbulence. The big plane suddenly rolls out of its steep turn and levels out, headed for the northeast eyewall. The huge, imposing wall of white boiling clouds rushes towards us at high speed. I buckle my shoulder harness, hang on the table with both hands, and pray for safe passage.
We hit the eyewall
Darkness falls. Intense blasts of turbulent wind rock the airplane. Torrential rain hammers the fuselage. The winds shoot up to 170 mph, gusting to 190. The three remaining engines whine and roar as Gerry fights off a powerful updraft. The turbulence is rough, but survivable. We cross the inner eyewall without hitting any incredible jolts like nearly knocked us from the sky on our way in.
Half a minute gone, one minute to go. The turbulence lessens. The updrafts and downdrafts diminish, the winds drop to 150 mph. We are definitely in a weak region of the eyewall! The radar display shows yellows and greens surrounding us, where before there were only the strongest reds and oranges.
One minute gone, half a minute to go. The airplane is barely shaking now, the turbulence is so light. It is hard to believe we are in the eyewall of Hugo! We are not ready to celebrate yet, though. Hugo is not to be trusted. The big plane lumbers on towards the edge of the eyewall.
Finally, SUNSHINE! YES! We made it! The sullen dark clouds of the eyewall slip away, and the suns shines down at us through a thin veil of high cirrus clouds. A huge smile of jubilation replaces my worried frown.
"Nice flying, Gerry!" I call out over the intercom.
"That wasn't too bad," Gerry replies, matter-of-factly.
"We made it!" The first view of the sun is a welcome sight as we head home.
View of the stopped #3 engine just outside Hugo's eyewall. NOAA 43, at upper left, escorts us home.
Lowell contacts the Air Force airplane.
"TEAL 57, we have just penetrated the northeast eyewall with no problem, right where you said to go. Thanks for finding a route for us! You guys really saved our butts!"
"Great news, NOAA 42, glad you made it! Do you require further assistance?" radios back Captain Self.
"No, we'll be heading back to Barbados with NOAA 43 to watch over us.
Good luck with the remainder of your mission. Have a safe flight!"
"We'll do that, NOAA 42. Good luck with the remainder of your flight. TEAL 57 out."
I say a prayer of safe passage for the Air Force airplane, and bid them a big silent "THANK YOU!" They put their lives on the line for us, and I owe them my life and eternal gratitude. Hail to the brave crew of TEAL 57!
Now well clear of the eyewall, we turn and head for Barbados, an hour and a half away. NOAA 43 appears out the right window, hovering protectively over us. The sight of our sister aircraft feels very reassuring. I still feel unsafe in our aircraft, fearing some unseen damage from the incredible forces we have encountered.
I unbuckle my seat belt and shoulder harness, and head back to the galley. Most of the crew are gathering there, trading stories on what we've just been through.
"It feels a little better now, outside the eye!" Bob Burpee exclaims.
"I would have been OK if I hadn't seen us lose number three," a jittery Terry Schricker adds.
"What happened to number three?" asks Hugh Willoughby.
"It exploded!" Terry exclaims. "Flames were shooting 30 feet aft of the airplane. I swear I could feel the heat of the fire through the wall!"
"You probably did!" I remark. "That thing puts out a lot of heat!"
Terry looks at me with dark, frightened eyes. "I'm all done flying," He says emphatically. "At least, flying into hurricanes. This is my last flight!"
I look at him and think to myself, "Amen, brother!"
Hurricane Hugo smashed through the Caribbean and Southeastern U.S. with incredible fury over the next week, killing hundreds and causing over $9 billion in damage--the most destructive hurricane in history, at the time. Most of the crew of NOAA 42 flew in Hugo again, on our undamaged sister aircraft. But for Terry Schricker and myself, the nearly disastrous first penetration of Hurricane Hugo's eye was our last flight. Terry stayed on in a non-flying role, and I quit the hurricane hunters a few months later.
NOAA 42 spent a month on Barbados undergoing a thorough check of its structural integrity before it was cleared to fly back to Florida, where it received a three-month long maintenance overhaul. No hurricane-related damage to the aircraft was found, except for the missing de-icing boot on the #4 engine and a failed fuel control sensor on the #3 engine. The instrument that recorded the amazing G-forces the aircraft encountered was found to be accurate, and engineers analyzing the data could only conclude that luck and the toughness of the P-3 airplane saved us from destruction. The aircraft continues to fly into hurricanes to this day. Later analysis of the data taken during our amazing flight into Hugo revealed that we hit a tornado-like vortex embedded in the eyewall when the hurricane was at its peak intensity. These eyewall vortices had been suspected but never before observed, and ongoing research suggests that similar vortices may be responsible for some of the incredible damage hurricanes can inflict when they strike land. When the next mighty hurricane threatens our coast, the Hurricane Hunters will be in the storm to learn more.