Tech: ‘We’re not crazy’: A NOAA hurricane hunter reveals what it’s like to fly into a big storm like Hurricane Michael

Hurricane hunters are a critical component of hurricane forecasting, providing information we can't get from satellites.

Hurricane hunter Jon Zawizlak sips ginger ale and eats pretzels before he flies into big storms. The turbulence can get a bit rough, and he'd rather not deal with stomach issues on an eight-hour research flight.

  • Hurricane hunters have been flying into storms for 75 years to measure wind speeds and pressure.
  • That’s the best way to get a clear, accurate picture of how strong and windy a hurricane is.
  • Hurricane scientist Jon Zawislak, who flew through Hurricane Florence, told us what the bumpy ride inside a hurricane is like.

Before he heads to work, Jon Zawislak sometimes pops a ginger pill into his mouth to settle his stomach. He also sticks to bland foods like pretzels and crackers before he gets to the office.

That’s because Zawislak is a hurricane hunter.

He spends eight hours at a time collecting data on the wind speeds, temperature, pressure, humidity, and rain inside big storms. While most of us on the ground do our best to avoid the eyes of these dangerous storms, Zawislak flies right into them, 10,000 feet in the air.

“Aircraft are still the single best platform that we have to measure the state of a storm,” Zawislak told Business Insider. “When it comes to the windfield, or the central pressure of the storm, that kind of data can only really come from an aircraft, and the instruments on the airplane.”

Last month, Zawislak traveled through both Tropical Storm Isaac and Hurricane Florence, collecting vital data that the National Hurricane Center used to upgrade storm categories and track where dangerous weather was headed next.

What a workday in the air is like

Hurricane-hunting flights have been around for 75 years, ever since British fighter pilots essentially dared a US Colonel to fly directly into a storm during WWII.

Today, Zawislak flies a Lockheed Martin WP-3D for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That plane has two critical devices that help inform the National Hurricane Center’s forcasts. An on-board radar system measures wind and rain, and a little device called a dropsonde is outfitted with a GPS receiver as well as pressure, temperature and humidity sensors

The dropsonde is a disposable instrument; it’s that essentially a paper towel roll with a parachute. The throw-away package gets stuffed out a window, then sucked away from the plane. Over the course of a typical eight-hour flight, a dropsonde operator might send 20 of them into a storm in various spots, from the eye to the outer rim.

As the dropsondes fall to the surface of the ocean, each one radios its information back to the plane. That allows weather scientists to examine how the windfield varies at different locations and heights in the storm.

“It really allows us to profile the atmosphere, which is one of the most important things,” Zawislak said. “So we can see how the wind speed changes with height.”

All this information can dramatically shift how forecasters characterize a storm.

Take Zawislak’s flight into Hurricane Florence on September 10, for instance.

“It went from what looked like a Category 2 hurricane, all the way to a Category 4 hurricane, just because we had the aircraft,” he said.

Hurricane Hunters sometimes spend hours flying through turbulent whirls

Zawislak tries to steer clear of greasy foods before he boards the plane to protect his stomach, but he said flying into a storm isn’t always a bumpy ride. Flying inside a storm can sometimes feel the same as a commercial flight.

Other times, the turbulence can be unnerving, even with a harness on.

“You have flights where you’re in moderate to severe turbulence for two to three hours,” Zawislak said.

The pilots Zawislak flies with (there are three of them in the cockpit) try to keep the plane level for the sake of their instruments and maintain a height of about 10,000 feet.

“We have the best pilots, the best engineers, the best mechanics, this is the best-maintained airplane you can find,” he said.

Inside the eye of a big storm — such as Hurricane Michael, which is approaching Florida — things clear up. A hurricane’s inner core is a place of peace, though it’s surrounded by violent chaos.

On Tuesday, the eye of Hurricane Michael was big enough that two planes flew through it and spotted each other as they took wind measurements. Last month, when Zawislak flew through the eye of Florence, he said the center of the Category 4 storm was more than 15 miles wide.

“It’s much bigger than any stadium you’ve been in,” Zawislak said.

Getting a job as a flying scientist

Zawislak holds a PhD in atmospheric science and has been working with planes and drones that fly through hurricanes for roughly a decade.

As a hurricane field program director for NOAA, he is essentially in charge of a plane-sized research lab in the sky. He decides what the flight path should be to collect good data, and makes sure the instruments on board record all the information they need to answer key research queries.

One of the biggest unanswered questions Zawislak has about hurricanes is how they get so fierce so fast. It’s still not well understood how storms organize and gather strength.

It’s an important part of Zawislak’s research, since a better understanding of why and how storms intensify would greatly improve forecasts.

Zawislak also pointed out that although he has to muscle through several long, bumpy, rainy rides every hurricane season, he’s not out of his mind for doing this job.

“We’re not crazy” he said before boarding a flight into Tropical Storm Isaac last month. “We are playing a humongous role in getting the information to the National Hurricane Center, so that they can tell the public how strong the storm is.”

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