Commander Cathy Martin wears a military-style uniform, flies a plane and works out of an Air Force installation — Hangar 5 of MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, to be precise. But instead of hunting bad guys in one of her unit’s WP-3D Orion propeller planes, she hunts weather. Very bad weather.
“As most people who’ve been on a[n] . . . airline flight know, you’ll sometimes experience turbulence,” she tells KidsPost, speaking from her office in Tampa. The “Fasten seat belts” sign comes on and the plane may shudder and shake. “They’re going to try to change their altitude to avoid a storm. For us, it’s not necessarily about comfort.”
Martin, 41, is a hurricane hunter with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a government scientific agency known as NOAA. She studied aviation and meteorology (the science of weather) before joining the NOAA Corps, a uniformed service similar to the Army or Coast Guard, in 2000.
For six months each year, during the hurricane season that begins Thursday and runs through the end of November, she is part of a team that collects what she describes as “vital data, to save life and property.”
When winds pick up, taking on strength near the equator and spinning toward the Caribbean and U.S. coastline, Martin and a team of pilots, engineers, navigators, technicians and scientists spring into action. About 100 people work alongside her at MacDill, where she is NOAA’s chief of operations. The Air Force also has hurricane hunters of its own based in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“We’re going out there to collect data from the storm that goes into [forecasting] models, which say how strong the storm is going to be and where it’s going to go,” she says. “Is it going to make a left turn or a right turn, or go from a Category 1 [the weakest of five hurricane classifications] to a Category 3?”
To do this, she and her flight team use instruments that look like Pringles cans with parachutes. Called dropsondes (pronounced drop-sawnds), these small cylinders are released from a tube at the back of the plane. As a dropsonde makes its 10,000-foot descent into the sea, it transmits information about air temperature, pressure, humidity, and the speed and direction of the wind.
On an eight-hour flight, Martin’s team typically releases 15 to 20 dropsondes while flying from one side of the storm to the other, trying to cover as much ground as possible. They head for the center (or eye) of the storm, where there’s no wind, and also search for the strongest winds, to help people on the coast prepare for what’s coming. Sometimes, the plane will release an unmanned aircraft, or drone, to gather data closer to the ocean’s surface.
“There are times when you’re in the clouds and can’t see anything,” Martin says, and when the plane passes through the “eye wall” — the part of the storm nearest its center — the rain can be “very loud.” Flights through tropical storms, whose winds are less powerful than a hurricane’s, can be the most turbulent, because the storm is still developing.
Once she reaches the eye of a major storm, however, Martin says “it could be clear all the way up and above you, and you could see blue skies.” Looking down, she can sometimes see crashing waves.
“These flights can be long, tiring and often several days in a row,” she says. NOAA’s planes, nicknamed Kermit and Miss Piggy after the “Muppets” characters, often take off at 2 a.m. Those are late starts for any pilot, and Martin says it can be difficult to adjust from a daytime to a nighttime schedule.
Still, flying at any hour beats working at a desk.
“I wish,” she says, “I could fly every day.”