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Hurricane Hunters: Flying Into The Eye Of The Storm

A hurricane is a tropical cyclone that typically occurs over the Atlantic, as well as the northeast of the Pacific Ocean. Characterized by low air pressure and strong winds, these storms can cause extensive disruption when they reach land. As such, the thought of flying a plane into one seems a rather dangerous prospect. But what happens when this occurs?

The purpose of ‘hurricane hunting’

The practice of flying aircraft directly into hurricanes dates back as far as the Second World War. The first recorded example of such daring airmanship reportedly took place in 1943 near Galveston, Texas as a result of a bet. Nowadays, such flights are far more considered, while also serving a crucial purpose in terms of understanding extreme weather.

Known as ‘hurricane hunting,’ flights that penetrate these tropical cyclones do so for the purpose of gathering weather data. The strong winds of a hurricane alone are unlikely to damage the aircraft in question. Indeed, the Office of Marine & Aviation Operations reports that sudden wind changes, such as in a tornado, pose a greater risk.

Hurricane hunting aircraft provide vital information in terms of a storm’s potential development. By getting into the eye of the hurricane, they can ascertain pressure levels within the storm, as well as wind data that helps meteorologists plot its development.

Which aircraft are used?

So which planes fulfill this interesting and vital meteorological role? In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) flies two Lockheed WP-3D ‘Orion’ turboprops. These are the only examples of this aircraft in the world, and the NOAA has used them since 1976. It also has a Gulfstream IV-SP jet which it uses for winter storms.

The US is also home to the only military weather reconnaissance unit in the world. Known as the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, this division of the USAF has been sporadically active since 1944, and permanently since 1993. Since 1999, it has operated a fleet of 10 Lockheed WC-130J ‘Weatherbird’ turboprops, which have a five-person crew.

How do airlines mitigate hurricanes?

While specialist weather reconnaissance aircraft are made to fly directly into hurricanes, airliners generally have to air a little more caution. As such, carriers will sometimes have to divert flights for hundreds of miles in order to safely make their way around the storm.

As far as passengers are concerned, the nature of extreme weather events generally leads airlines to be more accommodating in terms of booking flexibility. For example, Hurricane Henri in August 2021 prompted US airlines to issue emergency travel waivers.

Interestingly, there is sometimes an alternative option that doesn’t require such lengthy diversions. This specifically relates to the height of the average hurricane. Generally speaking, these typical cyclones are not as tall as other storms. This means that it is sometimes safe for airliners to fly over them. However, in practice, this is rather rare.

Did you know that certain planes can fly directly into hurricanes? Have you ever been on a flight that has changed its course due to such a storm?

S: Simple Flying

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