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NOAA aircraft scout out hurricanes that may threaten the United States by flying aircraft over and even right through them. We ask Lieutenant Commander Kevin Doremus what it's like to pilot an airplane through the eyewall of a massive storm.
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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we search for answers to the boldest questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric, and it's hurricane season. The questions we get about hurricanes are pretty wide-ranging. But when we talk about observing these gigantic storms in different ways, visitors have the most questions about the Hurricane Hunters. This is the fleet of aircraft, and the brave pilots, scientists and engineers, that fly right through the most dangerous parts of virtually every hurricane that may impact the Atlantic or Gulf Coast of the United States. The program is run by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and I was lucky enough to be able to talk with an entire team of Hurricane Hunters for this special three-part episode. For this week's part one, we will focus on the question that I would most like to have answered before boarding a Hurricane Hunter for a reconnaissance mission: how does an airplane possibly stay in the air while flying through a hurricane? My guest today is Lieutenant Commander Kevin Doremus, who has several years of experience piloting NOAA aircraft through storms such as 2019's catastrophic Hurricane Dorian. Lieutenant Commander, thanks so much for joining me.
KEVIN: Thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here.
ERIC: So to start with, people want to know if the planes really fly through the hurricanes, or do they just go kind of near them.
KEVIN: So we go right through the middle of them. Specifically in the P-3 Orion aircraft, which is the aircraft that I fly, our goal is to get to the eye of the storm. We go in anywhere between about 8 and 10,000 feet above the ground. So relatively low altitude, as far as aviation is concerned. We like the lower altitudes for a number of reasons, one of which is any higher, it gets to be kind of icy in the in the storm, actually, which can cause a lot of damage to the airplane. And if you go a little bit lower, it starts to get a lot more turbulent due to the interactions with the weather and the ground there. So that 8 to 10,000 feet is kind of our our sweet spot in the storm that keeps us as safe as we can possibly be. But yep, the end goal is to go right into the storm. Now we do have another Hurricane Hunter aircraft. It's a Gulfstream IV. So a high altitude Hurricane Hunter aircraft, they typically don't fly into the storm, but they fly around the storm at very high altitudes, up in like the 40,000 feet range and higher, and their goal is to kind of fly around the storm, over top of the storm. Sometimes we're not necessarily in it, but in the P-3 Orion certainly right through the middle.
ERIC: So yeah, so you pick out the calm part of the hurricane, you know, not too much ice, not too much turbulence, just right through the slightly-less-of-all-that stuff.
KEVIN: Yeah, we still get some pretty significant updrafts and downdrafts, especially going through the eyewall trying to get to the eye. But that is that is the safest spot for where the science wants us to go.
ERIC: So what are the conditions like when you're flying through the most intense part of it?
KEVIN: We are commonly flying into, you know, storms up to Cat-5 strength that can be pretty significant. From a operator's perspective, in the aircraft, most of our flying looks very gray. We are in clouds almost the entire flight. Going through the eyewall is where we get the most kind of significant updraft and downdraft for the turbulence, but also the most significant amount of rain. So a lot of times you'll be looking at your windshield, and it almost looks like you're flying through a bathtub, there's just so much precipitation in there. But one of the really neat things about the storm flying that we do is we know that on the other side of that really, really thick wall of water, there's going to be clear air in the eye of the storm. And so it's one of those things, it's like, you know, it's going to be kind of difficult for a little bit there. But on the backside of it, it's going to be nice and sweet and calm and give us a minute to kind of catch our breaths.
ERIC: So yeah, the eye of the storm for those big hurricanes, there's a miles-wide area where it's relatively calm. What's it like to just all of a sudden go from, like you said, flying through a bathtub into almost clear air?
KEVIN: Yeah, it's pretty dramatic transition, particularly for flying the airplane, you know, you're flying a lot of times with, you know, 140, 150, 160, knot winds, and we're trying to fly the plane on a steady track over the ground. So like a straight line, right. And so we're constantly having to adjust, where we point the airplane to keep it on that track where the science wants us to go. And so we'll be on a very significant, what we call crab angle, or the plane is kind of tilted into the wind a little bit to maintain that track. So very, very rapidly having to adjust our course to going from those super, super high winds to very, very little wind and eventually down to zero. That's our goal is to find that zero-net part of the storm. And then it's kind of interesting too, as you go out the other side of the storm, your correction angle going in is going to be opposite going the other direction. So it's just kind of a neat experience. You know, the Cat-3, Cat-4, Cat-5 are typically where you get those really well-defined eyes, which are many times clear above and clear below, and you get what we like to call the stadium effect. So you pop out of the eyewall into the eye, and the air is clear. And you have this ring of clouds around you. It almost makes you feel like you're sitting in the middle of a big stadium there. So pretty unique perspective that not a lot of people get to experience and certainly something. You know, every time I see it, it always takes my breath away.
ERIC: I was gonna say, you know, people have experienced the eye of these kinds of storms from the ground for thousands of years, but from the air, you know, up 10,000 feet, not a lot of people can say that they've seen that.
KEVIN: It was definitely a new perspective, that's for sure.
ERIC: So you mentioned part of your job is safety. What is the most concerning part of a storm? When you're thinking about keeping the plane safe, is it wind? Is it ice? Is it updrafts, downdrafts?
KEVIN: I think the biggest thing for us is avoiding dangerous convection. Essentially, big embedded thunderstorms, and sometimes even tornadoes in the eyewall. Our in-flight meteorologists, Nikki Hathaway is one that I fly with quite a bit, she's looking at all the different weather pictures and can see, like, hey, that looks like an embedded thunderstorm. So we're going to adjust our track, we're not going to go fly near that. So I would say, especially in the bigger storms, that's our biggest risk, is kind of avoiding those pop-up little cellular things that if flown through could do damage to the aircraft.
ERIC: Extreme conditions all the way through. But the last thing you want is a surprise extreme-within-an-extreme.
KEVIN: Yeah. And we had a crew. You know, maybe, I forget how long ago, maybe 10 years now, that accidentally flew into an embedded tornado in the eyewall, and, you know, caused an engine to fail and put the plane into a bit of a spiral. And so we've learned a lot from that. And we learned a lot every time we fly. And now we take different approaches to the storm to avoid things like that.
ERIC: So what is it about the planes themselves that make them able to fly through these storms? Are there any special modifications or features that make them separate from another Orion?
KEVIN: Yeah, absolutely. So the P-3 Orion that we fly is specifically designated a WP-3D Orion. The W is a reference to a weather platform. The P-3 Orion was an aircraft built for the US Navy, primarily for submarine hunting down at low altitudes. And the difference between a Navy P-3 and a NOAA P-3 is actually, they're very, very similar structurally. We've made a few changes to things that are sticking to the airplanes, which is radars and sensors and things like that. And structurally, the one thing that we really beefed up was the floorboards of the airplane just to be able to handle all the additional science gear that we carry on board. But as far as the airframe and the wings and the engines, they're all the same as a stock P-3 Orion. Granted, it was a, you know, World War II airplane that was built like a tank, which is why we like it. And you know, one of the reasons why we fly the P-3 and why it's such a great aircraft to support the work that we do is this configuration. So for engines, and very specifically for turboprop engines. So you'll notice most commercial airliners have big, what we call turbofan engines or big turbo jets. And they have these big openings and they take the air and they squeeze it and they explode it and they shoot it out the back and they make thrust. And those work great, but not if you're flying through a bathtub. So what we have is a jet engine with a propeller bolted to it, called the turboprop airplane, and the turboprops handle the rain ingestion to the motors much better than a turbofan engine does. And the other thing that we really liked about the P-3 is its responsiveness to power level changes. So on a jet engine, if you're on Southwest Airlines, you can get ready to take off and the pilots put the engines to max takeoff power, or you hear the engines go zzzzzzZZZZZ and they kind of spool up and sometimes it takes eight to ten seconds. In our aircraft, when we push the power levers forward, we have an instantaneous reaction. So when we have an updraft or downdraft or big fan of turbulence, we can quickly react to it and keep the plane flying safely.
ERIC: So it's constant corrections as you're dealing with the changing conditions?
KEVIN: Absolutely. We specifically have a crew member in the front. So we have a pilpt on the left seat, a pilot in the right seat. And in the middle seat, we have a person who is called a flight engineer. And the flight engineer's job in the storm environment is actually to physically manipulate the power levers to maintain a set airspeed. And that's their whole job, is reacting to those winds to make sure the airplane stays at a very specific speed that keeps the airplane safe.
ERIC: So a lot more monitoring and constant adjustment than a typical flight, definitely no autopilot.
KEVIN: Very much so, very much so, yeah.
ERIC: So what about the pilots? What kind of special training do you need to be able to fly this kind of aircraft? Do you do simulations? Do you do flying through smaller storms first?
KEVIN: Yeah, so there is no school for how to fly an airplane into a hurricane. There is quite a bit of OJT: on-the-job training. So what we do is when it comes time for you to learn to fly the P-3 Orion, we send our pilots to a pretty rigorous school that usually takes about three months. And the job there is to really, really learn the systems of the aircraft and understand how everything is working. So when things do go wrong, you're able to respond appropriately. All of our pilots go through simulator training initially and annually, we go to simulators where we have this big box that we can sit in, and an instructor sits behind you and just fails all sorts of stuff. And you get to practice on how to respond to that. We can simulate, you know, poor weather, things like that. But as far as storm flying goes, a lot of it is just done in the actual environment itself. So flying with other pilots that have been doing this for a long time, and learning from them and learning from their stories and their experiences. And then, you know, we have a pretty rigorous qualification process that takes you from a brand new pilot, to a co-pilot, to what we call aircraft commander, which is similar to the captain of an airliner. And then after you get aircraft commander, there's another qualification, which is a hurricane-qualified aircraft commander, and to be a hurricane-qualified aircraft commander, you would have experienced all these different things that you need to get signed off by senior pilot to make sure that our command and our people here feel comfortable with, you know, us taking an airplane into a hurricane. So a pretty rigorous process. It took me about three years to go from starting the P-3 to being a hurricane-qualified AC. And that's three pretty busy seasons. And, you know, I learned a lot in the last few years, for sure, it has been pretty dynamic, and we've been flying a lot.
ERIC: And how did you specifically end up here? Did you start by saying, I want to fly through hurricanes, and then go from there? Or did you get your pilot's license and then say, that sounds like an interesting job opening?
KEVIN: Yeah, I originally went to the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida to be a pilot, and I always thought pilots go be airline pilots. And at the same time, I had a love of aviation and science. And I found in my junior year of college, I learned about NOAA Corps. And I learned that NOAA had airplanes, and I found that to be a really great way to combine my love for the sciences and also love for aviation into one career. So after graduating college, I applied for the NOAA Corps. We require people to have degrees in science, math or engineering. And I actually ended up flying some of NOAAs's smaller aircraft. So we've got four Twin Otters, they're twin turboprop, high wing Canadian bush planes that we fly all over the country, all over the world doing really interesting scientific missions. And then I moved into a different airplane called a Turbo Commander, and flew a few years with the Turbo Commanders supporting a lot of low-level flying in the mountains, you know, hand-flying kind of stuff. And then after a few years of that, then I applied to be a Hurricane Hunter, and got selected and went through the schooling for that. So we'd like to our people that apply the P-3 to be, you know, solid, experienced aviators, so it typically takes quite a few years to get there.
ERIC: To finish, any special plans for the upcoming hurricane season? Do you just kind of wait until storms develop and then go fly at them?
KEVIN: Yeah, so we have a what we call a hurricane watch bill. So it's a it's a schedule that gets put out at the end of the hurricane season, and it says you're on call or you're off call. And we typically have two crews at all times ready to go on a moment's notice. So we get our tasking from essentially two different people, either the National Hurricane Center that wants us to go out and tell the Hurricane Center, where's the storm? And what is it doing? And then we also have the Hurricane Research Division that says, I want to find the storm and I want to learn about it and I want to study it and I want to do experiments in the storm. So we do research and reconnaissance, reconnaissance is go out and find out where the storm is, research is study the storm. We'll fly things all the way from what are called like a low-level invest. So they're just little kind of scattered thunderstorms and they're not sure if it's going to develop. We'll go out and fly that all the way up through tropical storms Cat-1 through Cat-5 and then all the way back down. We're basically ready to go at a moment's notice to go support the needs of the Hurricane Center or the Hurricane Research Division.
ERIC: Well, Kevin, thanks so much for joining me and telling us all about how you can fly through a hurricane, and good luck with the 2022 season.
KEVIN: Thanks so much, hoping for a calm season for everybody.
ERIC: Keep an eye out for part two next week, when we'll learn how the data is collected after the Hurricane Hunters are actually inside of the storms. To learn more about extreme weather on your next visit to the Museum of Science, don't miss our daily lightning shows in the Theater of Electricity featuring the world's largest indoor lightning storm. You can take a virtual tour of some of the equipment from home in our Sparks of Science video series. Until next time, keep asking questions.
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