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70 years ago, hurricane hunters got their start in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944

The Air Force flies WC-130 planes to study active hurricanes. (NOAA)

Seventy years ago, four U.S. Army Air Forces crews made seven flights into the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, proving the value of direct reports from inside tropical cyclones for forecasting purposes. Since then, air crews who have flown into hurricanes continue to help the National Hurricane Center make better, life-saving forecasts.

Even with our advanced satellites and computer models, National Hurricane Center forecasters consider the information collected by airplanes flying directly through hurricanes invaluable for predictions.

And, to answer a common question: since those first 1944 flights, hurricane hunter airplanes, and the men and women aboard them, fly directly into hurricanes directly through the eye, usually more than 10,000 feet above the ocean.

In addition to helping forecasters with predictions of particular storms, data collected on hundreds of flights over the years are the foundation of the knowledge needed to forecast storms and to build the steadily improving computer models that aid forecasters.

The September 1944 flights were made by the 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, which flew WB-25Ds with extra fuel tanks that allowed longer flights than the airplane’s bomber version.

The 53rd Squadron is now an Air Force Reserve unit that flies WC 130s into hurricanes from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. As in 1944, the squadron’s primary duty remains hurricane reconnaissance — collecting detailed data on the storm’s location and characteristics for National Hurricane Center forecasters.

The only other organization in the world that flies airplanes with people on board directly into hurricanes is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center at based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fl. It uses two Lockheed WP-3 Orion hurricane hunters, which fly into hurricanes primarily for research. When one of these airplanes is conducting research inside a hurricane it also supplies a continuous stream of data to forecasters, like the Air Force WC 130s.

In 70 years of hurricane and typhoon flying, six airplanes have gone down in storms, killing all aboard the six airplanes, a total of 53 men.

Five of these crashes were in Pacific Ocean typhoons.

The only airplane to crash in an Atlantic Basin hurricane was a Navy P2V Neptune that disappeared while flying in Hurricane Janet south of Jamaica on Sept. 22, 1955, killing all 11 men on board including nine crew members and two journalists.

The last fatal tropical cyclone crash was on October 12, 1974, when an air force WC-130 attached to the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron on Guam crashed while flying in Typhoon Bess over the South China Sea. The U.S. Air Force no longer flies into typhoons.

Weather Underground has the stories of all tropical cyclone flights and the names of those killed.

Scary moments for the hurricane hunters

While no airplane has crashed during a hurricane flight since 1955, there have been some close calls and scary moments, including two that Dr. Bob Sheets and I describe in some detail in our 2001 book, “Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth.”

Sheets, who was National Hurricane Center director from 1987 to 1995, was a research scientist and one of the 17 men aboard a U.S. Weather Bureau DC-6 research airplanes flying into Hurricane Gladys over the Gulf of Mexico on the afternoon of October 16, 1968.

After about three hours of relatively smooth flying, just as everyone aboard was relaxing and taking off their seat belts as the airplane headed for home, “without warning, the DC-6 bucked upward with enough force to pin everyone to his seat, if he were in a seat,” we write. “The upward acceleration hesitated, and Sheets quickly fastened his seat belt. The airplane accelerated upward again for a second or two before hitting a violent downdraft. All loose objects and many strapped-down objects as well — including heavy film magazines, oxygen bottles, and fire extinguishers — crashed against the top of the cabin. It was as if the aircraft had been turned upside down and shaken violently… The plane plunged almost 1,000 feet in four seconds.

“When the plane bounced against the bottom of the severe downdraft everything pinned against the ceiling crashed against the floor. Fortunately, because the top of the cabin was curved, all of the objects had been pushed to the highest point, so when they crashed to the floor most fell in the aisle rather than on people seated on each side.”

One of the men on board was seriously injured and was rushed to the hospital as soon as the airplane landed back in Miami. He later received a disability retirement because of his injuries.

On Aug. 23, 1964 a Navy Super Constellation — the Navy version of three-tailed airplane with four huge piston engines that represented the height of airline glamour in the 1950s and ’60s — was flying in Hurricane Cleo, a small but intense storm centered about 100 miles south of the western end of Puerto Rico, with its wingtip fuel tanks fully loaded.

While flying only 1,000 feet above the ocean in turbulence with the pilots struggling to keep control “a heavy jolt knocked out the radar. Now the crew was blind in the strongest part of the hurricane, which was heaving their airplane up and down without respite” with the wingtips flexing up and down. The pilots were not experienced hurricane fliers and had not burned the fuel in the wingtip tanks before reaching the hurricane as experienced pilots did.

During heavy turbulence those aboard saw “the left wingtip tank yanked completely off by the winds, leaving the outer end of the wing torn apart and spewing fuel. The weight of the fuel in the other wingtip tank now threw the aircraft radically off balance, and it spontaneously banked sharply to the right.”

As the pilots struggled to control the airplane, “suddenly they felt a second jolt even stronger than the first one, followed by a wild plunge toward the sea. This turbulence ripped radios, toolboxes, and other gear from the straps that held them down. Men were thrown to the ceiling, one had the tip of a finger cut off when he grabbed a table edge, and another had an arm broken.

“Things looked bad, but now the crew caught an ironically good break when the right wingtip tank broke loose, helping to balance the airplane. The plane was still flying, but in questionable condition, just a few hundred feet above the ocean in the core of the hurricane, with the radar dead and with three crew members seriously injured.”

Fortunately, the two U.S. Weather Bureau DC 6 airplanes, which were on their way to the hurricane heard the distress calls and helped lead the Navy airplane, with its broken navigation equipment, back to the Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, Naval Air Station. After inspecting the airplane the Navy scraped it.

But, as Bob and I write, “the fact that the seriously disabled aircraft had made it home safely gave navy crews considerable confidence as they continued flying Super Constellations into hurricanes for another ten years.”

Another close call involved one of NOAA’s WP-3 with 16 people on board that encountered winds up to 185 mph and at least one 45 mph updraft and a few 20 mph downdrafts on Sept. 15, 1989 when it flew into Hurricane Hugo, which was then east of Barbados.

The hurricane hunter team entered the eye wall of Hurricane Hugo expecting a weak hurricane, but encountered something much worse, as Hugo had gone into rapid intensification.

The extreme turbulence caused one of the airplane’s four turboprop engines to fail. With one of the four engines shut down and another possibly in danger of failing, the pilots climbed through the eye in a tight circle, keeping the airplane away from the turbulence in the hurricanes eye wall.

After about an hour of crippled flying, the crew of an Air Force Reserve WC-130 hurricane hunter arrived to locate a weak part of the eye wall that the damaged plane could exit through.  Using the information relayed to them by the Air Force crew, the NOAA pilots were able to leave the the eye, and returned to Barbados.

Jeff Masters, who is now director of meteorology at Weather Underground, was flight meteorologist on the WP-3 that day and tells the complete, harrowing story.