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Hurricane Hunters on tour

Crowds of people showed up Tuesday to see the Hurricane Hunter Aircraft of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


"This job is pretty exciting – and sometimes it’s a little too exciting."

—Barry Choy

Crowds of people showed up Tuesday to see the Hurricane Hunter Aircraft of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The NOAA WP-3D Orion turbo-prop plane was on display at the Martin State Airport north of Baltimore as part of NOAA’s five-city, five-day mission to increase hurricane awareness and encourage preparedness in vulnerable coastal and inland communities of the East Coast.

The WP-3D aircraft on display Tuesday was just one of many planes that the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center uses to help research and forecast hurricanes by flying directly into the storms.

The WP-3D has a Doppler radar on its belly, and a crew of 18-20 to staff it during the long flights into hurricanes and tropical storms. Dave Brogan, an electrical technician on the plane’s crew, is responsible for dropping instruments from the plane into the storm in order to gather data.

“We drop what are called ‘dropwindsondes’ around 5,000 feet up to help get wind speeds, and temperature and pressure readings,” said Brogran, holding one of the tube-shaped instruments. “We then transmit that information to the National Hurricane Center for their forecast models.  We probably launch 40 to 50 of them per mission.”

Each mission involves an eight to nine-hour flight into and around the storms, and Brogan said the plane went on six missions last year. “Last year was the busiest season of all for us – especially in September,” added Brogan.

The WP-3D, affectionately dubbed “Miss Piggy” by the crew, flies at a range of altitudes during its storm flights – dropping even as low as 200 feet to gather certain data.

The crew is also occasionally called to use the aircraft for research missions into thunderstorm supercells during the non-hurricane season.

As the public streamed through the plane for tours Tuesday morning, crew member Jim Roles – an electrical engineer – paused to say just how much he enjoys taking time to educate people about the crew’s work.

“I really love it, I like talking to people because they’re really interested in just what we do,” said Roles. “And I always think – if anyone listens, maybe at least one person will learn something about hurricanes that could prevent them from getting hurt.”

Being looked up to by the hordes of kids that show up isn’t that bad, either, he added.  “It is a pretty cool job,” he laughed.

Back outside the plane, the WP-3D’s pilot agreed. “This job is pretty exciting – and sometimes it’s a little too exciting,” said Barry Choy, pointing to several patched notches in the wing above him.  “Those there are where the plane has been struck by lightning.”

Tom Shephard, the crew’s flight director chimed in. “We received 25 to 30 lightning hits in one of those Midwest supercell storms we flew into,” he said.

Choy explained that the flights can get rough, but that’s not always a guarantee. “The turbulence really varies with the storm. Sometimes a tropical storm will be more turbulent than a Category 5 hurricane – it really depends.”

Both Shephard and Choy agreed that getting out into the public eye for education is a great part of the job. “This makes it for me,” said a smiling Choy. “Sometimes you lose sight of your purpose, but when you come and do this, it really brings it all home.  We work for you.”

Besides the general public, numerous public safety officials toured the aircraft as well.  Maryland Emergency Management Agency Director John Droneburg said he was excited to hear the aircraft was stopping in Maryland.

“It’s very interesting stuff,” he said. “It really raises public awareness of the technology they use that helps improve forecasting.”

And the plane has certainly been around long enough to see improvements in hurricane forecasting. Near the rear of the left-side of the plane is a list of every storm “Miss Piggy” has flown into – a list dating back to 1977.

Last year alone, the plane flew into Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

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