While Others Flee Dangerous Charley, Crews from MacDill Air Force Base Head Directly for the Storm

August 13, 2004

Mother Nature is poised to unleash hurricane-force winds and torrential downpours near Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay Friday, Aug. 13 from Hurricane Charley. While most people at MacDill have battened down the hatches and headed away from danger, the pilots and meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grabbed their gear to head directly into the storm.

NOAA officials study these violent and often devastating storms to more accurately predict their patterns and intensity. Hot and humid July, August and September are the peak of hurricane season, and the NOAA’s aircraft are ready to rock when an approaching storm threatens to develop into severe weather.

“The aircraft we use is very unique,” said Lt. Cmdr. Randy Tebeest, executive officer for NOAA. “Most general aviation aircraft couldn’t physically withstand the turbulence and debris inside a hurricane.”

The hurricane chasers have flown the WP-3D Orion used since 1977.

Commander Tebeest added that the equipment on the plane is specifically designed to study the environment around it, so the pilots are much better informed than most aviators about any dangerous conditions that could develop.

“We take the planes to their limit … but we’re not cowboys,” he said about flying into hurricanes. “It’s different than anything I could have imagined. We have a plan when we take off, and as soon as we are airborne, that plan changes. You never know exactly what it’s going to be like.”

According to NOAA’s Web site, www.noaa.gov, a hurricane is a category of tropical cyclone, the general term for all counterclockwise-circulating weather systems over tropical waters in the Northern Hemisphere. They are classified three ways:

— Tropical depression, an organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 mph or less.

— Tropical storm, an organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph.

— Hurricane, an intense tropical weather system with a well defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph or higher. In the western Pacific, they are called “typhoons,” and similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called “cyclones.”

Jack Parrish, NOAA chief meteorologist, said one of the primary tools used to study these storms is called a dropsonde.

“It’s a small tube with instruments in it that has a parachute attached. It also has a radio transmitter to send data back up to the airplane. When we get to the center of a hurricane at 10,000 feet, the dropsonde operator will release it into the center of the eye,” Parrish said. “It sends back information about wind speed, temperature, humidity and most important, pressure. This is the information the hurricane forecasters use to decide if the storm is getting stronger or weaker.”

Parrish said hurricanes are products of the interaction between the tropical ocean and the atmosphere. He said the storms are helped by Earth’s rotation, and they are powered by heat energy from the sea and are steered by the easterly trade winds and the temperate westerlies as well as by their own energy. Of the 60 to 70 tropical waves originating in Africa, most storms never fully mature into hurricanes.

Each year on average, 10 tropical storms (of which six become hurricanes) develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico. Many of these remain over the ocean; however, about five hurricanes strike the United States coastline every three years. Of these five, two will be major hurricanes (Category 3 or greater on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale.)

The Tampa Bay area was last hit by a major storm in 1960. The death toll attributed to Hurricane Donna was more than 150, and damages were estimated at $400 million. This storm was a catalyst for the foundation of NOAA, officials said.

Originally created as the Research Flight Facility in 1961, the goal of the combined effort of the Weather Bureau and the Department of Defense was to learn more about hurricanes. The main objective was to see if a storm’s intensity could be decreased through dynamic cloud seeding. A WC-130B aircraft was obtained on loan from the U.S. Air Force in 1970.

President Richard M. Nixon proposed the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in July 1970. His goal was to unify the nation’s scientific efforts under one agency.

NOAA became a reality in October 1970. The organization was tasked with the responsibility to predict changes in the oceans, atmosphere and living marine resources. Data collected by NOAA was shared with other agencies, private industries, the research community and the public.

The aircraft operations center moved to MacDill in January 1993.

NOAA’s aircraft operate throughout the United States and “wherever the weather takes us,” Commander TeBeest said. He said the agency takes an interest in projects from air-quality studies to aeronautical charting and marine mammal studies. The P-3, known affectionately as “Miss Piggy,” has been to multiple countries including Tahiti, Honduras, Newfoundland and Trinidad.

While hurricane chasers have the high-profile jobs, NOAA officials are involved in much more than severe seasonal weather patterns. Their research helps meteorologists and safety experts develop new technology for coping with Mother Nature.

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