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Crews fly into the eye of the storm, for safety's sake

By the CNN Wire Staff
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron spent Saturday flying into Hurricane Irene collecting data.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron spent Saturday flying into Hurricane Irene collecting data.
  • The U.S. Air Force Reserve's Hurricane Hunters fly around the clock during storms
  • The data they gather are instantly relayed to the National Hurricane Center
  • Weather forecasts are based on such information
  • It's awesome to be inside Mother Nature and to help people, a hurricane hunter says

(CNN) -- What kind of people fly into the eye of a hurricane and why do they do it?

"It's an awesome job to not only be inside Mother Nature, but to help so many people," said hurricane hunter Capt. Nicole Mitchell of the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

She and other crew members from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron spent Saturday flying into Hurricane Irene. They gathered data such as the storm's wind field to gauge its impact area as the storm barreled over the East Coast.

Among other key data gathered by the crews: storm movement, intensity and the location of the eye of the storm. Based on such information, weather forecasters can warn people in the path of Mother Nature.

"We do it because we love the weather" and it's exciting, meteorologist Mitchell said of the squad, known as the Hurricane Hunters.

The data they gather are instantly relayed by satellite to the National Hurricane Center, she told CNN. That data supplements information gathered by satellites, which have limited effectiveness over open ocean.

The crews fly 10 Lockheed Martin WC-130 Hercules medium-range planes from their home at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.

"Although there are usually some bumps on the way through (the eye of a hurricane), they are nothing that the airplane can't handle, although the folks on board can occasionally get sick," the crews' website says.

"Hurricanes vary considerably in both size and intensity, but in general there are just a few 'exciting' moments that usually occur during eyewall penetration."

An official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration described taking a similar data-gathering flight for Hurricane Irene on Friday night:

"I got bumped more coming back to Washington on a commercial flight than I did on that whole (data-gathering) flight," Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA's deputy administrator, told CNN on Saturday.

"Irene last night when we went through was beginning to come apart a little bit. It was astonishingly wide. The eye was 60 miles wide," Sullivan said. Someone likened it to an ice skater with her arms out, slowing down, Sullivan said of the NOAA flight at 12,000 feet.

Such flights help make sure that mayors, governors and other officials have "the seamless information that they need to make the tough decisions they've got to make," she said, referring to emergency measures.

The Hurricane Hunters work around the clock during storms, flying anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 feet above the ocean in X patterns. How high they fly depends on a storm's intensity, giving crews time to recover if their plane takes the brunt of the weather, Mitchell said. The missions average about 10 hours, with six-hour blocks inside a storm.

The WC-130J planes have been operated for several years, chasing storms in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, according to Lockheed Martin.

The Hurricane Hunters are the only Department of Defense organization still flying into tropical storms and hurricanes, the crews' website says. And they've been doing it since 1944.

"There is always a risk associated with aviation, but we pride ourselves on the fact that we have flown over 100,000 mishap-free hours," the crews' website says.

"As we approach the strongest winds in a hurricane, we simply turn gradually into the wind until we punch through into the calm eye," the sites says.

That said, the Hurricane Hunter Association offers the Swan 38 scholarship to students, in memory of a crew with that call sign. The 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron crew of six people disappeared without a trace over the Western Pacific in October 1974, according to the website.