“Safety is our greatest priority”: How NOAA Hurricane Hunters brave the weather while studying severe storms

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- When it comes to researching hurricanes and severe weather, many participants choose to stay on the ground.

But the atmosphere is constantly changing, and it spans several miles high. In order to improve severe weather forecasts, it needs to be researched from above.

No doubt, it is a daunting task — yet there are some who welcome the challenges of the job.

Flight director Mike Holmes (left) with fellow Hurricane Hunter technicians. (Photo: WHNT News 19)

“It’s the perfect fit for me," explains Michael Holmes, a flight director and meteorologist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters.

"It’s obviously exciting and we get to travel, it’s operational, and I get to work with a lot of great people at the AOC [NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center], as well as scientists."

As a crew flight director and meteorologist, Holmes' job is to analyze the storm environment, observing what is happening around the aircraft. The goal is to obtain scientific information without putting the crew in danger.

Real-time flight data during a severe weather reconnaissance mission on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Photo: WHNT News 19)

“We [would] not fly into a tornado, or even a severe weather convective line. The dynamics between flying into a hurricane eyewall and flying a Midwestern or Southeastern severe weather event are very different. Vertical velocities [rapidly rising airspeeds] are extraordinary and there’s hail,” Holmes continued.

“Hail would destroy the airplane and so that’s why we’ve identified a safe standoff distance out in front of the line or convective cell. And we’ll just parallel it.”

“Our radars would be able to peer into it so we would get all that data but we don’t have to go into it,” Holmes concluded.

Tail Doppler Radar (TDR) from the NOAA WP-3D Orion Hurricane Hunter airplane. (Photo: WHNT News 19)

The WP-3D Orion is built to sustain moderate turbulence, which can happen when flying five miles ahead of severe thunderstorms.

But even the scientists admit that the constant bouncing can be nerve-wracking.

"We went on the south side of one storm that was bow echoing in western Kentucky, and we got a little too close to that," explained Jessica Williams, a flight director and meteorologist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters.

"We hit 2.9 g's [gravitational force] which is pretty close to the max of the aircraft can handle before we need to inspect it at 3.0 g's. So we got about as close as we can to the weather today and then after that, on the north side of that same bow echo as it was bowing out, it had a severe warning on it," Williams continued.

View from the cockpit of the NOAA Hurricane Hunter airplane. The pilots monitor the nose cone radar in the dash in order to fly parallel -- not into -- severe storms. (Photo: WHNT News 19)

"We had constant, high-end of moderate turbulence and we just wanted to get out of that. It was a little too much extending for too long of a time," Williams concluded.

For some, the storms' turbulence does not deter them from doing the job.

“I will say it’s intense," Holmes stated. "But no, I do not get scared. For the flight director, our role is to ensure the safety of flight.”

"We have a lot of tools to help us interrogate and assess the environment ahead of us and to go around anything that might present a threat,” Holmes explained.

WHNT News 19 meteorologist Christina Edwards (left) and NOAA Hurricane Hunter Jessica Williams (right) celebrate a successful reconnaissance mission. (Photo: WHNT News 19)

“It will be bumpy, but no I don’t get scared.”

But not all who fly are fearless. I asked Williams whether she experiences anxiety before and during scientific missions:

“Do you ever get scared while you’re up there?”

Her response:

“Uh, yes, I do! I say my prayers!”

But when it comes to science, it’s a job that someone’s go to to do.