Lessons From a Hurricane Hunter

“Traditionally everyone who thinks of the hurricane hunters thinks of the P-3 Orion,” said David Cowan, an aircraft commander with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Well they are part of the equation. The other part is the G-IV.”    

David, EAA 1260580, had his first brush with aviation in summer 1986 when he made his first pilgrimage to Oshkosh with his father. He left knowing that someday he wanted to be a pilot. After taking flight training at Community College of Beaver County and graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a degree in meteorology, David set off on a career path that would help save lives. He now has been flying as a hurricane hunter for years, and has a resume that includes working on a team of medical helicopter dispatchers at STAT MedEvac in Pittsburgh and five years of flying a Twin Otter in Alaska as a whale watcher for NOAA.

David said while the robust Lockheed P-3 flies right through a hurricane, the Gulfstream G-IV, which he serves on, flies above and around it.

“The P-3 is built like a tank with props that take a lot of punishment,” David said. “[The airplanes] are providing two different sets of data. The P-3 flies inside the hurricane and provides us real time data about what is going on in the storm right now. The G-IV flies near the hurricane and collects data by the scientists and the equipment located in the rear of the aircraft.

“This information is sent to the center in Miami as well as the modeling center in Maryland where it helps predict where the storm is going. The forecast model is important as it gives us the ability to evacuate pin point areas.”

It is important to try to get as accurate as possible because the plans for when and where to evacuate come straight from the data collected by these crews. David said the current estimated cost for every mile along the coast that needs to be evacuated is more than $1 million.

“Years ago there would be wide spread evacuation, where now the data collected improves our forecasting to where we can see errors in track as low as 50 miles, which gives emergency managers the best information to date to assist in evacuations,” he said. 

David’s wife, Leigh, works in emergency management, planning evacuations and coordinating with FEMA, local, federal, and state support.

“Leigh is a saint,” David said. “She worked on NOAA ships as a NOAA corps officer and she knows what is at stake. It is interesting because where my job ends, hers starts.”

While on many of the missions David is flying, the information he gathers is being fed straight to a team such as Leigh’s on the ground. They can then send out warnings, evacuation notices, and relief information. 

This year their family was directly impacted by the storm activity seen this hurricane season. Dave flew several missions around Hurricane Irma, which passed directly over his home.  Many times, David and Leigh have to prepare their own home for the storms, and then go to their jobs where they try to save others.       

The challenges of flying in the extreme weather conditions are big, but David said the mission and information coming out of what is being collected is bigger.

“Most of the time I am flying, it is just gray out,” he said. “I am in hard IFR conditions and I am using the nose radar for navigation. I do remember one time; I was above it and looking down on a category 5 hurricane. It was surreal. I just kept thinking that the people who live where this one is heading have to be getting ready for 150-knot or greater winds.” 

Another unforeseen challenge that the hurricane hunters have to deal with is the warm air that is lifted into the upper flight levels (41,000-45,000 feet), which is associated with many of these storms.

“It can really challenge aircraft performance as aircraft are designed to fly at the high altitudes in cold environments,” David said. “This year has been very active. Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  I flew them all except Jose. Jose’s impact on the environment made the forecasting difficult for Maria. And then there was Harvey. Harvey was horrific. There is no other word to describe it.”

It takes a whole team to get the raw data from a storm and transform it into information that can be used to help save lives and property. That is something David said the entire NOAA team is very proud of. The dedication of those who work in one of their programs on ground crews or flight crews is second to none, and NOAA has never lost a plane despite flying into the worst of conditions. 

NOAA photo by Lt. Kevin Doremus, courtesy of David Cowan

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