‘Hurricane Hunter’ planes help gather storm data, what to know as hurricane season approaches

The National Weather Service has been visiting gulf states to inform about the dangers of hurricanes and how they could impact Georgians.
Published: May. 4, 2023 at 6:37 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WALB) - New technology is being used in 2023 for better tracking and forecasting of hurricanes.

Hurricane season is less than one month away, as it starts on June 1, and equipment like certain airplanes helps to determine where storms are, where they’re going and how they will impact us here in South Georgia.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses three aircraft, two of which are active now, to run into hurricanes and gather data. It’s vital data to see where the hurricane is going.

Nick Underwood is on the engineering side. He deploys “dropsondes” and other technology into storms.

“I operate data systems and play instruments that record temperature, pressure, humidity, humidity wind speed and direction. All those factors that are important,” Underwood said.

The measurements the plane gathers are important because they are used in weather models. Models that the WALB News 10 First Alert Weather Team uses. The weather service plane has two radars. They also drop “dropsondes” for weather data.

The hurricane hunter plane has pilots, navigators, engineers, and meteorologists on each flight.
The hurricane hunter plane has pilots, navigators, engineers, and meteorologists on each flight.(WALB)

Underwood has flown into the eye wall of some of the most powerful hurricanes.

“It’s like a wooden roller coaster that’s in a car wash, so it’s a lot of vibration and a lot of getting bounced around, wind and rain slapping against the side of the aircraft,” Underwood said.

Captain Kyle McElhaney is in the Air Force. He is the navigator of one of 10 planes the Air Force uses.

“I got to fly (Hurricane) Ian prior to landfall. Thankfully for me, I didn’t get the worst of it, but some of my compatriots said it was one of the worst of their life,” Capt. McElhaney

The Air Force plane is unique in that it drops buoys in the ocean to gather data. Underwood says all this technology improves incrementally, but drones have recently been used for the first time.

“We deploy drones from our aircraft. They move around for about two hours at lower altitudes. Parts of the storm that we really can’t get to safely,” Underwood said.

He said flying at 5,000 feet and below is dangerous because planes can lose 1,000 feet of altitude in a second or less. Underwood hopes that sharing what he does will inspire the next generation of hurricane hunters or even scientists.

“It’s good to teach young kids, inspire them to math and science degrees. Prior to me starting this job, I didn’t know that hurricane hunting was a thing. Now that I’ve been doing it for seven years, it’s hard to imagine me doing anything else,” Underwood said.

Again, hurricane season starts June 1. 2022 was forecasted to be an above-average season in the Atlantic by most seasonal forecasts. We ended up with 14 named storms which are just about average numbers.

“Even though it was about average, it was so very active season. Especially in Florida, we had (Hurricane) Ian. It really only does take one storm,” Dan Brown, the Senior Hurricane Specialist for the National Hurricane Center, said.

In 2023, climate scientists like Dan Brown are expecting a below-average season. He expects an El Nino pattern in the Pacific Ocean, which will make it harder for storms to develop. Still, both he and Felecia Bowser with the National Weather Service are saying to prepare now.

“Trim down those dead tree branches that are crisscrossing. Make sure you have the necessary water and non-perishables. Tornadoes can also develop from a hurricane. So know the place you need to go in your home,” Bowser said.

The first week of May is Hurricane Preparedness Week. The National Weather Service has been touring sites along the Gulf of Mexico to you educate everyone about the dangers of hurricanes.

October will mark five years since Hurricane Michael. That storm rapidly intensified in the gulf. Bowser says the more times these planes fly into storms, the better picture we get of future, rapidly intensifying storms.

“It’s extremely useful because those planes, once they get in line, one of the things they look for is pressure and they look for pressure drops,” Bowser said.

Brown also wants the public to be aware of what happens after hurricanes.

“We’ve seen a lot of fatalities happen with heat exhaustion and improper use of generators and heart attacks. A lot of the time, elderly population is more vulnerable, so check up on each other,” Brown said.

For more hurricane season tips, click here.