Into a Hurricane

Hurricanes are a ready metaphor for every crisis, but some people face them everyday and survive.  Here's one story, told by hurricane pilot Barry Choy.

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Captain Barry Choy operates out of Tampa, Florida, piloting WP3D “Hurricane Hunter” airplanes, which are nothing more than modified versions of the Lockheed Electra.  He’s flown hundreds of missions, including days of flights into Hurricane Katrina that improved forecasts of its landfall by more than 150 miles.  I caught him last winter at NOAA headquarters, where he joined in a discussion on the future of forecasting.  He provided a glimpse of this truly unique profession,  underscoring the importance of innovation not only in forecasting, but public motivation.  These are his words:


The Aircraft

"Having 4 engines is kind of a nice thing.  The P3 flies pretty well on three engines; two engines if you’re really light—you know, if you don’t have a lot of fuel.  We fly at 210 knots.  That’s basically the book speed for turbulence penetration.  It’s between 190 and 220 depending on the level of turbulence.

It’s very noisy as you go through the eye wall.  It’s very hard to hear because of the intense rainfall.  The raindrops themselves act as almost a sandpaper.  It’s loud and it also starts eating the paint off the wing...

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People ask - ‘well, you guys fly above the hurricane and then you drop down in the middle and you climb back out and you get out of it.’  That’s not what happens in this WP3D, we just go right through.  If we fly too high we start experiencing ice or graupel; and it can even further erode the leading edges of the wing and the tail to the point where it will actually eat right into the metal itself.  We also get struck by lightning more often at around the freezing level.

It’s a misnomer that we’re flying these aircraft that are beefed up or anything; this is a production aircraft—just came off the line brand new, and we took it into a hurricane.  And to be honest with you the G-loads that we take under normal circumstances aren’t really much greater than you would find when you go into turbulence with an airliner."

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The Pilot

"What does it take to train for something like this?  Well, the way NOAA does it is all of our pilots—or most of our pilots—we start out flying these light aircraft.  So I flew snow survey for five years in the upper midwest.  And we build up a lot of experience in flying—just general flying experience.  

Then for us they send us to the U.S. Navy.  I flew with the Navy for a little over two years.  And we get P3 experience; they train us how to fly P3s.  And we fly U.S. Navy P3s doing whatever operations they are doing and this gives us time in the P3 itself.  Then you come back into NOAA—or you always were in NOAA but you come back to NOAA—and you fly hurricanes.  

Now, to become an aircraft commander you have to gain so many hours in the P3.  And then to become a hurricane-qualified aircraft commander you have to do so many hurricane penetrations—actually go out there and fly storms: it’s 50.  You have to do 50 before you can be a hurricane-qualified aircraft commander.  And then you can be in the left seat.  

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So, do we do that in a simulator?  Well, in a simulator we can simulate certain things—turbulence and all that—but there’s nothing like flying a real hurricane for training.  And we use 50 because after about 50 you’ve seen just about everything you’re gonna see.  To be honest with you, about 90 percent of the time—pretty easy.  Pretty easy flights.  You get bounced around and all of that but...pretty standard.  It’s that like 10 percent of the time where you just...something unexpected happens and you have to be ready for it.  

And the most dangerous thing would be to have an aircraft malfunction while you’re in the eye of the hurricane.  So, let’s say an engine flamed out---or you have a fire, you know, onboard or something like that—and have to deal with that while in that environment is very difficult.  We train for it.  We’ve had some things happen.  And we like to think we’re ready for anything but I don’t think you ever are."

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The Job

"All we hear is negative: 'oh, you know, you guys missed it.'  We never hear when we get it right.  Why is that?  

Katrina...we were flying this thing day after day.  You know.  The forecast was perfect.  You saw.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  The warnings, watches—absolutely fantastic.  Fifteen hundred people died.  You know?  Joplin tornadoes—these tornadic events.  

  • Five days in advance: ‘This is coming, folks.  Be prepared.’  
  • Three, four, five days: ‘It’s still coming.  We still think it’s coming—not think it’s coming—we know it’s coming.  Be prepared.’  
  • Hours in advance: ‘Here are the storms.  They’re here now.  They’re gonna produce tornadoes and it’s gonna be very dangerous.’  
  • Twenty, thirty minutes in advance: ‘There’s a tornado on the ground—it’s coming to your town.’  

Five hundred people lost their lives.  Or maybe more; I don’t know what the final count was.  Why?  Didn’t have to be, I think.  In fact, after Katrina I did a talk and I said: Why do we even do this?  Why did I go out and fly that storm and risk my life?  

What I should have done is fill the whole plane up with pamphlets, flew along the Gulf Coast, and dropped ‘em.  And say: Get out of the way.  People would go: ‘Wow, they’ve never done that before.  We better get out of the way.’  Probably would’ve been more productive.  I would’ve saved probably hundreds of hours in flight time, and I wouldn’t have to risk my life.  I could do it on a clear weather day before the storm even got there."


Quotes are directly from Choy's presentation at NOAA's Heritage Week Guest Speaker Series, February 4, 2012.