Andrew's Blog: A flight into Hurricane Joaquin

Crew members gathered data about the storm during the 12 hour flight. (Photo source: Andrew Wilson, WLOX)
Crew members gathered data about the storm during the 12 hour flight. (Photo source: Andrew Wilson, WLOX)
Not only was Andrew gathering data, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream. (Photo source: Andrew Wilson, WLOX)
Not only was Andrew gathering data, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream. (Photo source: Andrew Wilson, WLOX)
Andrew flew into the eye of the hurrican with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. (Photo source: Andrew Wilson, WLOX)
Andrew flew into the eye of the hurrican with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. (Photo source: Andrew Wilson, WLOX)

(WLOX) - Thursday was a big day for me — I flew into Hurricane Joaquin with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the Hurricane Hunters.

Getting to fly with the Hurricane Hunters isn't something I randomly decided I wanted to do. It's something that has been a dream of mine for a very long time.

We'll take it all the way back to the mid 90s, when I was in first grade. An employee with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Florida came and spoke to my class on hurricanes and severe weather. Afterward, I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life.

Throughout middle school and high school, I always wanted to do research or work for the National Weather Service; specifically something with tropical meteorology. However, it wasn't until my sophomore year of college that I decided to add some broadcasting classes to my heavy science course load.

I took a special class in college called Tropical Meteorology where we learned all about the dynamics and structure of tropical systems, as well as their behavior. Taking this class made me start thinking that I may want to do graduate school to do a deep study in tropical system intensification and behavior.

Ultimately, I decided to skip grad school and enter the broadcast field after receiving my bachelors degree in Professional Meteorology with a Broadcast Emphasis from Mississippi State University.

Now — fast forward to Wednesday. I was already excited because after I clocked out for the day, a nine day vacation was supposed to start. But, around mid-afternoon I was asked if I would be interested in flying with the Hurricane Hunters into Hurricane Joaquin early Thursday morning. It was an offer I couldn't turn down.

I went home, packed up and went straight to bed. I then woke up at 9 p.m. Wednesday and got ready for what would be a big day ahead of me. I met up with Master Sergeant Brian Lamar Thursday at 12:30 a.m. at Keesler Air Force Base. He took me back to the Hurricane Hunters office, where they were already starting their briefing on what to expect for their mission.

After the brief we headed onto the airstrip, loaded the plane and waited for departure as another plane was coming in from the storm. The C-130 we were on seemed ready to go, but after they ran a few tests before our flight, they decided that there were a few issues that would keep that aircraft from flying into the storm for our mission.

We unloaded and got on another one of the Hurricane Hunters C-130's; they always have a back up plane prepared in case of these issues. When we finally got everything loaded and everything was approved for flight we took to the air. Shortly after takeoff, a few of the crew members and myself took a nap to prepare for what would be a bumpy ride within the next few hours.

We were already expecting a bumpy ride after the storm was upgraded to a category three hurricane before we even took off, meaning it had now become a major hurricane. When we woke up, the sun was coming up and we were over the Bahamas with Hurricane Joaquin ahead of us.

As we made our first pass through the eye wall, I looked down and saw an island that had winds whipping the water all around it. You could tell the strong storm had it in its grasps. As we made several passes through the eye wall, and flight crew members were busy in the front helping direct pilots through the safest areas to fly.

While this work was going on in the front of the plane, there were two people in the cargo area collecting data on what the storm was doing using weather instruments on the plane, and the dropsondes that were dispensed into the storm.

Each time we passed through the eye of the storm, three dropsondes would be dispensed: one at the first pass through the eye wall, one in the middle of the eye, and one as we went back through the eye wall. All of these were for gathering information on the center of the storm and what the structure of the storm was like.

I think it was on our way to the second pass, there was a disabled cargo ship caught within the storm and the hunters took a moment to fly over it several times before making the pass to try to make contact with the ship. Because I was not on headset, I was unable to hear if we ever made contact. I was very impressed that the hunters took time out of their mission to check on the ship.

After completing all of the passes through the storm, it was time to head home. The information gathered by the hunters found a pressure of 938 mb and a wind speed of 120 knots, which is nearly 140 mile per hour winds. This data ranked the storm as a category four hurricane, meaning the storm had increased in intensity as we went through it.

On our way back I spent a lot of time looking out the window at all of the clouds, and at the islands of the Bahamas that had not yet seen the storm. It was a beautiful view with the clear, blue water. I also got to see a few cool weather features viewing storms not associated with Hurricane Joaquin from the plane window.

The trip was amazing, and I was happy I was able to go. I will never forget though looking down on the island after we passed through the eye wall and seeing the water being whipped off of it. As a meteorologist, we find this weather fascinating. The amount of energy that goes in to a hurricane is astronomical and as a scientist, we see them differently. I see a hurricane as a giant heat engine. It takes the warm moist air, and water as fuel, and uses it to produce energy; dispersing the air after using it.

We never want to see these storms have a negative effect on people. That's why were there: to find out more about these storms and forecast for them better to keep people safe. Being able to see the science put in by the Hurricane Hunters to protect the public is something I will never forget.

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