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Eye Contact

The winds reached 115 mph. The plane shuddered. All at once it emerged, like a train hurtling from a tunnel, into an oddly cheerful sunlight. The hurricane hunters had found their quarry.

By Michael Cannell
Sunday, September 1 1996; Page W18
© The Washington Post

I got my first glimpse inside a hurricane somewhere over Bimini. It was 6:30 a.m., and our plane had at last entered the storm's periphery. I climbed a short ladder from the fuselage to the flight deck, where five crewmen eyed instruments in an anticipatory hush. Through the cockpit window I could see a glowering range of thunderheads backlit by the rising sun. From 18,000 feet, the storm's outer arms, known as feeder bands, looked like vast gray tentacles stretched out below us. "In any other type of flying, you try to avoid bad weather," the pilot, Lt. Col. Terry Self, told me. "Here, we're headed straight for it. A lot of veteran pilots say they'd rather fly combat missions."

In his civilian life, Self is a Continental Airlines pilot based in Greensboro, N.C. He spoke in the whispered cadences of a Southern preacher, even as the tempest engulfed us. He has earned his equanimity: This was his 25th summer spent flying into hurricanes. Like his colleagues, he considers it a humanitarian mission.

Behind Self sat Maj. Rich Woodford, the weather officer. He would spend the next eight hours studying white thunderhead splotches on a green radar screen, and advising the pilots on avoidance maneuvers. So far the ride had been as smooth as any airline flight, but minutes after I entered the cockpit, the first gut-wrenching bouts of turbulence broke the calm. I tottered below and strapped myself into a mesh jump seat. Not far away -- just beside the no-frills metal cubicle that served as a head -- was the plane's supply of industrial-strength air-sickness bags. A blurb stamped on the bags' cover urged users not to feel embarrassed.

"Oh boy," I thought. "Here we go."

For an exact fix on a hurricane's location and intensity, meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center in Miami dispatch the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron -- the hurricane hunters -- on perilously bumpy excursions into the cylindrical eye. When I went along, during 1995's unusually intense hurricane season, our mission was to penetrate Hurricane Luis and record its vital statistics firsthand. The hairiest flying assignment outside of warfare falls to 10 rugged aircraft and a close-knit corps of 120 Air Force reservists. Half are full-time weather trackers; the rest donate two weeks a year from workaday lives as lawyers, mailmen, commercial pilots and accountants. "It's a small cadre," Woodford told me. "It's like a firehouse." For all our technical wizardry -- our Doppler radar and 24-hour Weather Channel -- we still rely on routine acts of human bravery to forestall calamity.

The urgency to learn a storm's destination in advance has intensified in recent years as increasing millions of dollars go toward protecting and replenishing sand-depleted beaches, particularly along the East Coast's fragile chain of barrier islands -- a chain that includes, in this general area, Chincoteague, Assateague, and Fenwick and Mackay islands, as well as popular resort destinations like North Carolina's Outer Banks. The potential for damage has escalated in recent decades, as shorelines have grown congested with condominiums, resorts and private homes. According to the Insurance Institute for Property Loss Reduction, the value of coastal property from Texas to Maine totaled $21.4 billion in 1993, a 166 percent increase from 1980.

The National Hurricane Center's predictions grow 1 percent more accurate each year. But the danger to coastal communities increases far more rapidly. Ocean City, Md., for example, can just barely evacuate its peak summer population of 250,000 over a pair of two-lane bridges within the center's 24-hour warning period. It would take the Florida Keys a full 40 hours. A hurricane that struck the Keys on Labor Day 1935 brought a 20-foot storm surge that submerged low-lying bridges and causeways and killed 400. A comparable storm today would exact an unimaginable toll.

The busiest hurricane season since 1933 was in full swing by the time I joined the hurricane hunters at Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami last September 6. A relentless procession of storms had deployed across the crowded Atlantic like bombs lobbed from afar -- Allison, Barry, Chantal, Dean, Erin, Felix, Gabrielle, Humberto, Iris, Jerry and Karen. The hurricane hunters had already flown 90 missions before September, including a record-breaking 24 into Felix.

If every hurricane establishes its own character, then Luis, the 12th named storm of the year, distinguished itself as the Big Bully. It swirled innocuously enough across the mid-Atlantic, then surprised everyone, as hurricanes often do, by bulking up to 140 mph before roaring across the Leeward Islands and laying waste to Barbuda, Antigua, Anguilla, St. Barthelemy and St. Martin, and killing at leat 16.

Puerto Rico braced for a lashing, but Luis spared it by turning sharply northwest just 24 hours before the anticipated landfall. Even so, Luis was the most destructive storm to hit the Caribbean since 1989.

The hurricane hunters operate from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., but, in order to stay within a thousand miles of roving storms, they deploy from half a dozen airfields scattered across the Caribbean and United States mainland. They were flying out of Antigua until just before Luis struck the island. As the storm moved north, they kept pace by relocating to Barbados, and then Homestead, the southernmost base in the continental United States, which is where I joined them.

There could be no graver advertisement of hurricane power than Homestead; the base still bears the scars of Hurricane Andrew, the costliest disaster in United States history. As I drove across the base at 2 a.m., my headlights found scruffy patches where buildings had been sucked from the ground. Palm trees were either uprooted or defoliated. "It looked like a newsreel of Hiroshima," said Maj. Bobby D'Angelo, a base spokesman. "F-16s were removed on flatbed trucks." Hurricane hunters watched from above that morning as the storm mangled the base they took off from.

With this disquieting evidence in mind, I joined the 3 a.m. pre-flight briefing. Six crewmen in green flight suits stitched with "hurricane hunter" patches sipped coffee while the operations director, Col. Doug Niolet, updated us on Luis: The storm was now situated 600 miles off southern Florida. With winds of 145 mph, Luis had matured into the season's most menacing storm. The previous crew had endured its bumpiest flight of the year. Luis was now marching due north with bad intentions; a westward swerve could produce disturbing prime-time footage.

The briefing included two meteorologists from the National Hurricane Center. In a few hours, they would get their first live look at a hurricane. "I've waited my whole life for this," said Fiona Horsfall, who writes storm-tracking software.

At 4:30 a.m. we rode onto the tarmac where a floodlit C-130 Hercules with "Weather" painted across its tail fin hummed in preparation for takeoff. The C-130 has been the Air Force's all-purpose transport and rescue plane for more than four decades. It's a rough-and-ready affair well-suited for storm reconnaissance because it can stay aloft for 12 hours, and its propellers handle rain and turbulence better than conventional jets. "This is just about the most forgiving plane ever built," the copilot, Troy Anderson, explained in the folksy, right-stuff drawl favored by aviators. "You've got to screw up pretty bad to get into trouble." Still, I found no comfort in the knowledge that this particular plane was built in 1965, the year I attended kindergarten.

We entered a cavernous military-green fuselage stripped to bare wiring, hooks and steaming duct-taped pipes. At 4:45 a.m. the propellers rumbled to life, and we strapped ourselves into a mesh jump seat facing an auxiliary tank containing 1,800 gallons of fuel. For the next 12 hours it would be nearly impossible to converse over the drone of the four turboprop engines, except by intercom. I did hear someone whistle "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder," the Air Force anthem.

Like most hurricanes, Luis began as an embryonic cloud cluster over the hot Sahara. Of the hundred or so squally splotches that drift off Africa's northwest coast each year between June and November, roughly 10 bloom into tropical storms as they migrate west on the trade winds. On average, six coalesce into full-blown hurricanes with winds exceeding 74 mph. Two will strike the U.S. coastline. Over the years a number of hurricanes have struck the coastal areas near D.C.; the most recent, in 1986, was Hurricane Charley, which strafed Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach and other areas. It's exceedingly difficult to know in advance where a hurricane will make landfall; while satellite photos look impressive on the nightly news, they tell us surprisingly little about the nature of rogue storms bearing down on coastal communities. Satellite photographs, after all, don't show wind speeds or the fickle steering currents that influence a storm's itinerary. Usually, they don't even include the eye. Meteorologists don't know for sure what's out there until they send in a hurricane hunter.

I could hear the pilots throttle back on the engines as we entered Luis. Our nose dropped and we lost altitude. Self explained that forecasters are most concerned with surface winds because they're what coastal inhabitants experience if the storm strikes land. For this reason, we would swoop low through the storm to sample conditions as near the sea as possible.

The lower we flew, the stronger the winds. Luis's low-pressure vortex was sucking warm, moist air from vast distances, and it spiraled inward along the storm's bottom strata. As we rumbled eastward at 200 mph, the storm's counterclockwise winds buffeted us from the north. Self kept the plane on course by "crab angling" it 20 or so degrees upwind, like a swimmer crossing a current-filled river.

We clawed our way through withering gusts with reasonable composure. "Wind speed isn't important as long as the plane has its nose in the wind," Anderson told me. Rather, it is updrafts and downdrafts that concern pilots. When inward spiraling air hits a thunderstorm, the air blasts upward, like steam released from a caldron, to 50,000 feet. Even under ordinary circumstances, vertical lurches can be jarring enough to render the cockpit instruments unreadable. Hail can dent the plane's aluminum skin. It is not uncommon for lightning to strike the wings, surge through the plane and singe a pinhole as it exits the tail.

Self brought us down to about 8,000 feet. He dared not go any lower. Last June, while traversing Hurricane Allison, he lost 3,000 feet in about 45 seconds. He regained control 2,000 feet over the churning seas. "You wait for the plane to find the bottom," he told me. "You just hold on and try to level out. When that happens at night, it's like riding a roller coaster in the dark. You don't know where it's going."

For years the National Hurricane Center displayed a weather forecast for Galveston, Tex., dated September 8, 1900: "Rain, brisk to high northerly winds becoming variable." A monstrous hurricane hit Galveston that night, accompanied by a 20-foot surge of water. Six thousand residents died. Drowned bodies were found dangling from treetops 20 feet off the ground.

In those days, an approaching hurricane was only a rumor. Forecasters ventured predictions based on scanty evidence: weather reports cabled from islands or radioed from distant vessels. But there were never enough reports to accurately track a storm's whereabouts. Too often, hurricanes arrived unadvertised.

Certainly, nobody dared fly into a hurricane until the afternoon of July 27, 1943, when Col. Joseph P. Duckworth of the U.S. Army Air Corps took off from Bryan, Tex., in a single-engine AT-6, the only plane he could use without official permission. Duckworth was an Eastern Airlines pilot who had enlisted to teach airmen how to fly through bad weather by relying on the cockpit instruments alone. Nobody knew what a hurricane would do to a small plane, but Duckworth, accompanied by a young navigator, returned unscathed save for a few cuts and bruises inflicted by turbulence. Duckworth later said that his only fear was that heavy rain might extinguish the single engine.

After Duckworth landed, a weather officer regretted having been left behind. So Duckworth deposited him in the back seat and duplicated his earlier flight.

Regular reconnaissance began the following year, but it was far from routine -- particularly for those unlucky enough to wander unwittingly into a storm. On October 11, 1947, a Miami-bound Pan Am DC-4 took off from Havana in a late-afternoon downpour and crossed the Florida Straits where, by accident, it entered a hurricane. An Associated Press reporter aboard the flight later filed this account:

"Seven passengers passed out cold from fright. Others dripped cold sweat . . . The big airplane was tossed about like a feather. Vertical air blasts sometimes threw it straight up 1,000 feet or more, sometimes dropped it sickeningly as great a distance. Lightning, brilliant and blinding, flickered around the plane constantly, and once a ball of Saint Elmo's fire leaped across the wing.

"Rain in such torrents that only the nearest of engines could be seen, hammered against the fuselage, flooded into the pilot's cockpit, and dripped down the cabin walls. Twice the plane ran through hail and the sound was like the wings being torn off.

"The wildly bucking and weaving plane twisted so that the cabin door leading out of the plane flew open. Steward F.S. Yado unbuckled his safety belt and, held by stewardess A.A. Brady, caught the door and pulled it shut again. So wild was the ride that to unbuckle one's safety belt was to invite a tossing from end to end of the cabin."

The storm had closed the Miami airport by the time they arrived. They circled for an hour and a half, then detoured east to Nassau. Upon landing, the shaken passengers gave the pilot a standing ovation.

By the late 1940s, crude reconnaissance performed by Army and Navy pilots provided our first inklings of hurricane behavior. In those days, pilots approached from high above the storm -- as high as the plane would go -- then descended by cautious degrees. These early missions were often fruitless. The goal was to pinpoint the storm's location, but crews had trouble calculating their position from inside the tempest. Besides, distortion often prevented them from radioing their observations to land stations.

By comparison, today's incursions are conducted aboard flying laboratories wired with computerized sensors that measure wind, temperature and atmospheric pressure. Our weather officer, Rich Woodford, sat at a cockpit computer tabulating data collected in eight-second intervals. Every 10 minutes, he beamed prodigious batches of information via satellite to the new National Hurricane Center, which opened in May 1995 beside Florida International University.

When a menacing storm like Luis threatens the coast, the hurricane center becomes a war room. Throughout our flight, the atmospheric data we collected was used by 35 or so sleepless forecasters. Meanwhile, Director Robert Burpee, his deputy and five "hurricane experts" explained to 80 or so television and radio interviewers (plus countless print reporters) what Luis was doing, and what he was likely to do next. Their prediction: Luis would not make landfall within the next day or so.

Dangerous storms like Luis may be on the upswing. The construction boom that has transformed the Eastern coastline since the mid-1970s coincided with a 20-year lull in hurricane activity, and the timing may have fostered a dangerous complacency. If a theory advanced by atmospheric scientist William M. Gray of Colorado State University is correct, a prolonged drought in the semi-desert Sahel region of Western Africa inhibited hurricane formation throughout the 1970s and '80s. The dry cycle has ended and a rainy phase is now underway that Gray predicts will return us to the kind of hurricane-rich seasons that pummeled the Eastern Seaboard from the late 1940s through the 1960s. This year, Gray is predicting another prolific season -- more active than usual, though not so devastating as last year's. He estimates that of 11 tropical storms likely to materialize in the latter part of 1996, seven will attain hurricane status; and that two of these should be serious enough (clocking winds of at least 101 mph) to cause serious problems if they hit populated areas. The average hurricane causes $3 billion in property damage; with development piled high on susceptible seashores, the potential for damage is far greater now than it was in the last prolific spell.

Climatic change may also contribute to killer storms. Although not yet dignified with full scientific credence, global warming theories have led forecasters to conjure nightmarish scenarios of overheated oceans spawning mega-storms packing 250 mph winds. Warm ocean water is the fuel of hurricanes, and some scientists say an increase of just 1.5 degrees could produce 40 percent more hurricanes.

Such dire expectations compel forecasters to find ways of venturing earlier predictions. At the same time, the National Hurricane Center labors under a countervailing pressure to withhold its guess until just the right moment, lest it needlessly set the local emergency machinery into motion and scare millions of residents into prematurely boarding up homes and closing businesses. Precautions are expensive: An evacuation on the Northeast coast, for example, costs approximately $1 million per mile. (Even without a full evacuation, July's brush with Bertha, downgraded to a tropical storm, cost Virginia Beach as much as $5 million.) When hurricane Alicia barreled toward Galveston in 1983, city fathers reluctantly ordered an evacuation that cost $41 million. The storm missed Galveston altogether.

National Hurricane Center officials worry that letdowns like this encourage complacency. If the storm misses its predicted target, or fails to live up to its billing, underwhelmed residents inevitably accuse the forecasters of crying wolf. Next time, they say, they'll ignore the warnings and stay home. They're entitled to do so: Even in an official state of emergency, authorities can't force residents to evacuate.

Prediction is complicated by the erratic nature of hurricanes. Trade winds nudge them west across the Atlantic. As they follow the familiar northward curving trajectory, they are subject to the vagaries of weather swirling down off North America. Storms are like leaves twirling among capricious currents. Depending on invisibly shifting influences like cold fronts and the jet stream, they can halt on a dime, stall for days and loop back on themselves. Last summer's Hurricane Iris, for example, surprised forecasters by pulling a 90-degree turn to the north. All forecasters can do is ponder the divergent tracks projected by half a dozen computer models and venture their best judgment.

"We still don't know what makes them tick," meteorologist Jack Beven of the National Hurricane Center told me during our flight into Luis. "A hurricane's motion is still a mystery."

"We're going into the eye wall in about 45 miles," navigator Maj. Charley Whitt announced at 7:05 a.m. At this point, the crew's easy banter gave way to terse purposefulness. Eye walls are concentrated rings of thunderstorms, five or so miles thick, encircling the storm's placid core. Crossing this threshold is every flight's crucible and crescendo. The closer we flew to the eye wall, the more violent the plane's agitations. Downdrafts dropped us like runaway elevators. Black clouds obscured the wings. At 7:16 a.m., Whitt announced the winds had reached 115 mph. The plane shuddered. "You bust into that eye wall," base spokesman D'Angelo said, "and you've got a handful of aircraft."

All at once, we emerged, like a train hurtling from a tunnel, into an oddly cheerful sunlight. An incongruous utter calm prevailed in the eye; all turbulence subsided. It's not unusual to see birds trapped inside this oasis, flying around and around, traveling with the hurricane for hundreds of miles.

We unbuckled our safety harnesses and gazed downward through an oversized Plexiglas window at a spectacle of terrifying beauty. Normally, the eye is a distinct circular chimney extending upward from the water to about 50,000 feet. In this case, the presence of two concentric eyes blurred its definition. The outer eye was supplanting the inner as the storm reconstituted itself. "It's finding its core again as it moves over warm Gulf Stream waters," Fiona Horsfall told me as we looked out the window. "It's trying to re-form and strengthen." Though murky, the eye still resembled a heavenly amphitheater leading downward to a writhing ocean. Prodigious waves trailing swaths of foam -- as expansive as suburban parking lots, by my estimate -- collided from all directions. Twenty-four hours earlier, an errant ship had reported waves as large as five-story buildings.

During our 58-mile passage across the eye, the crew scouted the spot that marked the storm's exact epicenter by searching out the lowest barometric reading with small navigational adjustments. From his computer station in the rear of the fuselage, Tech. Sgt. Scott Denham launched a three-pound cylinder equipped with sensors, transmitter and battery, known as a dropsonde, down a chute protruding from the fuselage floor. The dropsonde fell away with a resounding "thwack" and, seconds later, deployed a parachute. During its wild descent to the sea, the airborne canister beamed wind, temperature, humidity and barometric readings up to the plane.

Minutes later we plunged into the eye wall on the opposite side and continued 150 miles to the storm's eastern edge. There we clocked winds of 85 mph, a finding that provoked clucks of surprise from the crew. Normally they encounter winds half that strong -- gale force or less -- on the storm's outskirts. We had determined that Luis packed hurricane-force winds over hundreds of miles.

We rode the counterclockwise winds north, then reentered Luis heading due south. Symmetry is a key indicator of storm vitality; every mission flies the same "alpha pattern" to record opposing quadrants' relative strength. We made four penetrations -- or "pennies" -- in all from the cardinal points of the compass. "We just keep slicing the pie until we run out of gas," said navigator Capt. David Price.

For all its daredevil thrills, hurricane hunting is tedious work. As the hours dragged on, coffee and sandwiches went around. A wire-service reporter climbed into a bunk and slept. "Hours of boredom," Self sighed over the intercom, "interspersed with moments of sheer terror."

After the fourth fly-through, we exited the storm for good and headed home. Another hurricane hunter was already flying out to replace us. Ironically, one of the hairiest maneuvers of all came as we landed in a fearsome thunderstorm unrelated to Hurricane Luis. Total flying time: 11 hours and 5 minutes. The crew staggered from the fuselage. Nobody had the energy to talk. The crew would do a few days of ground work before their next flight. With an ocean full of storms, there was no time for rest. The accumulated flight hours took their toll. Self contracted pneumonia before the end of his two-week tour.

Data collected on our flight helped forecasters see that Luis was a powerhouse fraying around the edges as it strayed over cold northern water. Already another cyclonic rage, Hurricane Marilyn, was gathering force over the mid-Atlantic, followed by Opal, Pablo, Roxanne and Sebastien. By November, the hurricane hunters ended their busiest season with 157 flights totaling 1,817 hours inside storms.

The morning after flying into Luis, l went to my family home on Fire Island where, as a child, I'd played in the debris of beachfront homes swept away in 1962. Fire Island is far more vulnerable now -- erosion has erased its wide beach -- and a certain fatalism prevails, a vague conviction that the knockout visitation could arrive any season. It looked for a while as if Luis might deliver that punch, but it passed on its way toward gradual depletion off Newfoundland. It was still capable of dispatching punishing sets of swells that halved the protective dunes. At high tide, waves broached the dunes and trickled to within 50 yards of my doorstep. "There's nothing we can do about this," a neighbor remarked. "This shows us who's in charge. This time, we were lucky."

Michael Cannell is a New York writer. He last wrote for the Magazine about the design and construction of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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