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NOAA's WP-3D Orion "hurricane hunters"June 26, 2001 — Twenty-five years ago, on June 27, a NOAA crew flew the first NOAA WP-3D Orion "hurricane hunter" into Hurricane Bonny in the eastern Pacific. That flight marked the beginning of a remarkable career of 646 runs into 67 hurricanes by an aircraft that is considered a workhorse of NOAA and is still going strong. (Click NOAA image for larger view. Click here for 300 dpi tiff image, which is about 20 mb. Click here for 300 dpi jpeg image, which is about 10 mb.)

Jim DuGranrut, now deputy director of NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla., where the P-3 is based, is the only member of the original crew of 13 AOC flight staff and four Hurricane Research Division scientists who is still with NOAA. He is gathering together as many of the group as he can locate for a reunion on the 27th, and looks forward to reminiscing about that historic first flight.

"The early season Pacific hurricane was less intense than most Atlantic hurricanes, so Hurricane Bonny was a relatively safe testing ground for the new P-3," said DuGranrut, who was an electronics engineer on the 1976 flight.

NOAA P3 onboard station"We had been working around the clock to get the P-3 equipped with its meteorological instrumentation and ready to fly by the beginning of hurricane season. Then during the flight we were so busy making sure the equipment worked, we didn't have time to get nervous," DuGranrut said. "Nevertheless, we were all pretty relieved by the end of the first flight that the P-3 handled so well. It takes a lot of nerve to fly into a hurricane in an unproven aircraft." (Click NOAA image for larger view of P3 onboard monitoring station. Please note: this is a large file.)

"That first P-3 flight was a scientific milestone as well," said Peter Black, a scientist with NOAA's Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Fla., who was on board a companion NOAA C-130 aircraft that flew with the P-3. "The sea-surface temperature data collected on our companion flight, together with the P-3 data at low, middle and high levels, showed how Bonny peaked and then weakened when it crossed the ‘cold wake' created by intense Hurricane Annette, which had passed through the area two weeks earlier."

That 1976 season gave more opportunities for the NOAA P-3 to prove its mettle. The aircraft flew into Atlantic-spawned hurricanes Francis and Gloria, and was again up to the task. Though sparsely equipped by today's standards, the P-3 carried temperature probes and pressure sensors on its fuselage, and a radar in its nose radome that gave meteorologists on board an up-close view of storm dynamics.

In 1977 NOAA's first P-3 was joined by a second, and both turboprop aircraft were outfitted with three weather radars especially designed for them: in the nose radome, underneath the fuselage, and in the tail section. These gave scientists a three-dimensional look at hurricanes for the first time from the P-3s. The system in the tail section was upgraded two years later to a Doppler radar, the first weather Doppler radar to be flown on an aircraft.

Flights to Remember

NOAA's P3 onboard meteorologist stationTwo and a half decades of hurricane flights are bound to throw up some memorable rides, and sometimes it's the little details that stick in the mind. DuGranrut can still see a reel of tape rolling down the aisle of the P-3 during Hurricane David, a bruiser that hit the Caribbean in 1979. "I watched the door of the tape deck pop open and the tape jump out and roll away," he said. "It certainly wasn't the strongest hurricane I'd been in, but it was one of the most turbulent." (Click NOAA image for larger view of P3 onboard meteorologist's station.)

Indeed, a category 5 hurricane might be devastating to whatever lies in its path, but doesn't necessarily pose as much danger to the hurricane hunter flying within it.

According to DuGranrut, "The strongest hurricane I was in was Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. We were traveling crosswise through its 10-mile wide eyewall, where we clocked its wind at 203 miles an hour. But it was one of our smoother flights because the storm was so well organized. It's when the hurricane is changing—either gathering force or disintegrating—that things get really rowdy."

NOAA's P3 at Washington National AirportDuGranrut wasn't on the P-3 that narrowly escaped disaster during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. "That's the kind of war story you like to talk about with your buddies when it's over, but is terrifying while you're in the midst of it," he said. That day, one of the P-3's four engines started spitting fire; the plane was caught in a tornadic updraft and spun about. Those aboard feared structural failure, with potential loss of a wing or other essential part. With the P-3's nose pointed downward and just 700 feet above the ocean, the pilot was able to regain control and pull the aircraft up intact to 1,000 feet. An Air Force Reserves C-130, which was also flying the storm, led the crippled craft back through the eyewall to safety. Despite the harrowing escape, the crew reported back to duty and carried on. The aircraft was thoroughly inspected and found to be structurally sound. The work may be dangerous, but NOAA has an impeccable safety record. (Click NOAA image of P3 at Washington National Airport for kickoff news conference of 2001 hurricane season.)

Improving Forecasts

During the past 25 years, significant progress was made in hurricane forecasting, largely due to advances in technology used aboard the P-3s as well as in computer models developed by NOAA's Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Fla., and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab in Princeton, N.J. Data is transmitted from the aircraft to the National Weather Service Telecommunications Gateway, then routed to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, Md.

The quantity and quality of data transmitted from the aircraft to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center dramatically increased with the introduction of satellite communications, which replaced high-frequency radio. In the early days, a radio operator on the P-3 read off storm data through static and storm fury, and listened while the ground-based operator read it back for verification. This severely limited the quantity of data that could be sent, and the system was prone to error. According to DuGranrut, Bob Sheets and Bob Burpee, meteorologists and frequent flyers with the National Hurricane and Experimental Meteorology Lab, precursor to today's Hurricane Research Division, saw the promise of satellite communications and worked with NOAA's Science and Engineering Division at the Aircraft Operations Center to equip the P-3s. Both aircraft have transmitted data via NOAA's GOES weather satellites since the late 1970s and now have satellite telephone systems available as well. Sheets and Burpee later became directors of the National Hurricane Center.

The development of dropwindsondes, small instruments that are deployed from the aircraft and transmit data back to the aircraft, has enabled meteorologists to get temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and wind direction data from the altitude of the aircraft down to the sea surface. Dropwindsondes were the creation of scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., using the specifications of NOAA engineers. Before this technology was used, readings could only be taken from probes and sensors on the aircraft at the altitude the P-3 was flying. The planes would have to fly back and forth at altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 25,000 ft. to get the measurements needed.

Another technological advance came with development of the global positioning system, which uses satellites to pinpoint the exact location of an object. Dropwindsondes now utilize GPS, which replaced the old Omega navigation system, coupling meteorological data with the precise location of each sonde as it transmits.

Today, the P-3s also carry remote sensing equipment that measures sea surface temperature, wind speed and wind direction. This latter technology is particularly important in predicting storm surge, which can be the most devastating impact of a landfalling hurricane.

As technology has grown more sophisticated, instruments and computers have shrunk in size. Equipment that used to take up about half the space of a P-3 now only requires 20 percent of the aircraft space, and about three fewer technicians are needed, leaving space for even more equipment, more scientists and media. A typical flight will carry about 10 flight crew, six scientists, and two journalists.

NOAA's hurricane research mission also changed during the past 25 years. The P-3s were originally acquired to carry out hurricane modification research, where the focus was on mitigating damages by weakening the strength and intensity of the storm. That focus was later changed to improve hurricane forecasting. More than two decades of research and investigation of storms by NOAA's Hurricane Research Division has led to better computer models and a greater understanding of the life cycle of storms and the differences in the way storms develop.

"Nobody but NOAA does routine scientific flying into nasty tropical weather. The P-3s have a proven ability to operate safely in the most difficult conditions imaginable," said Dr. Hugh Willoughby, director of the Hurricane Research Division. "They can carry lots of heavy instruments and provide plenty of electrical power. There is enough room for the engineer who built the instrument to fly along for tinkering or repairs. It's actually an advantage that the P-3s fly so slowly because they don't feel the bumps as much and can hang around to watch interesting weather. The payoff is that P-3 observations form the basis of an increasingly sophisticated understanding of hurricanes and tropical weather. It's been a privilege to spend most of my scientific career in these old airplanes."

In addition to conducting research, the P-3s provide data to the National Hurricane Center, which uses the information for current hurricane predictions. Although most reconnaissance missions for the National Hurricane Center are flown by Air Force Reserves WC-130 aircraft, the P-3s fly missions in Cuban air space where Air Force planes do not go.

NOAA added a Gulfstream IV high-altitude surveillance jet to its hurricane aircraft fleet in 1997. The specially equipped G-IV flies around hurricanes into the steering currents, helping forecasters at the National Hurricane Center increase the accuracy of their landfall predictions.

Enter the Muppets

NOAA's P3 artworkIn the 1980s, the two P-3s were dubbed Kermit and Miss Piggy after the beloved Muppet characters. It all started when a mechanic from AOC decided to spruce up a bedraggled P-3 that was unkindly called "the pig." He drew up a picture of Miss Piggy in a flight suit grasping a lightening bolt and renamed the aircraft. AOC later contacted Jim Henson Productions to see if they'd be interested in designing logos for both aircraft. They were, and Kermit and Miss Piggy, wearing flight suits and goggles, now adorn the P-3s. When the G-IV joined the fleet, Jim Henson Productions designed a logo for it featuring Gonzo, in honor of the jet's pointed nose. (Click on image of NOAA P3 artwork for larger view.)


Ensuring Future Flights

Among the unsung heros of hurricane flights are the people who maintain and equip the aircraft, making them safe and effective. NOAA's safety record in the worst of weather is a testament to the quality of aircraft maintenance performed by AOC's Operations Division, Maintenance Branch; its ability to gather data using specially developed or modified high-tech equipment is a result of the creativity and skill of engineers from AOC's Science and Engineering Division.

Despite their age, the P-3s remain in excellent condition and NOAA intends to operate them well into the future. Along with the normal day-to-day maintenance requirements, the aircraft are given a thorough inspection every 50 flight hours. The aircraft are also given an in-depth inspection every 300 flight hours, and taken to the Naval Aviation Depot in Jacksonville, Fla., every four years for a complete inspection and overhaul.

The P-3s are the best aircraft for the research work they do for several reasons. First, the structural design enables them to carry three radars, as opposed to the one nose radar that is carried by a C-130. Instrumentation can be hung in pods from the
P-3's wings and fuselage. The power provided through four engines and turbo-propellers enable them to fly through heavy weather. For instance, power can be instantly increased by changing the blade angle of a turboprop. In a jet, about 15 seconds are required to increase power. That 15 seconds could spell the difference between life and death in a hurricane-strength downdraft—which is one reason why jets don't fly through the most turbulent part of hurricanes.

Best and Worst Moments

NOAA's Jim DuGranrut at Washington National Airport, May 21, 2001DuGranrut has spent his career working on and around NOAA's P-3 hurricane hunters. Oddly enough, his worst moment—when he thought the P-3 wasn't going to make it—wasn't in an Atlantic hurricane. It was over a runway in Bombay, India, when the P-3 was returning from a monsoon experiment. The landing gear didn't appear to be working and a crash landing seemed inevitable. Fortunately, it was only a glitch in the cockpit indicator and the plane safely landed. (Click NOAA image of Jim DuGranrut, deputy director of NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center, at Washington National Airport, May 21, 2001.)

So why does he still do it?

"Well, there's always the gorgeous sunrise or sunset to fly into," DuGranrut said.
But more than that is the satisfaction everyone gets from the work—the feeling that they're contributing to something important. It's really just a job. A unique office, but just a job."


NOAA's hurricane hunters and other aircraft are operated, managed, equipped, and maintained by the Aircraft Operations Center, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. The aircraft are crewed by officers of the NOAA Corps, the nation's seventh service, and civilian meteorologists, flight engineers, and electronics engineers and technicians. AOC is part of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. Most of the P-3s' flights are in support of the Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Fla., whose scientists fly regularly aboard the aircraft.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations

NOAA’s “Hurricane Hunter” Aircraft

NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center

NOAA Corps

NOAA's Hurricane Research Division


Hurricane Hunting Photos Online

NOAA's National Hurricane Center — Get the latest advisories here

NOAA Satellite Images — The latest satellite views

Colorized Satellite Images

NOAA 3-D Satellite Images

NOAA Says 5 to 7 Hurricanes Could Threaten

Atlantic Tropical Events 2001 — NOAA satellite imagery

Current Satellite Images, including Tropical Storms

Hurricanes: Nature's Greatest Storms

Archived NOAA satellite imagery of historical events

Historic Hurricanes

Hurricane Basics

NOAA's Weather Page

Media Contact:
Jeanne Kouhestani, NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, (301) 713-3431, ext. 220