NOAA AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS CENTER HONORED FOR EXCEPTIONAL HURRICANE WORK
Nov. 9, 2004 ó Hurricane season is quickly coming to a close, but millions of Americans will not soon forget the parade of storms that came crashing into the U.S. mainland, as well as a number of other nations in the path of the powerful and deadly storms with names like Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. The state of Florida was hit four times in a matter of weeks. During the intense hurricane activity, the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla., had the NOAA hurricane hunters constantly flying into the storms and keeping NOAA personnel literally in the air for days at a time. (Click NOAA image for larger view of NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV-SP hurricane hunter aircraft in flight a couple of years ago. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
There were a staggering number of day and night aircraft missions into major hurricanes, flown for numerous NOAA interests, all of them critical to the coastal residents of the United States, and all without a single mishap or accident. Safety always came first, even in the eyewall of Hurricane Ivan, a Cateory 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. With the constant pace of all three heavy aircraft, and with so many storms threatening the AOC employees' homes and families, one might have expected more frayed tempers and lost focus. It was just the opposite. NOAA personnel had sharp eye-on-the-ball awareness that meant increased vigilance, which had to be the norm. It was that way from the first mission into Tropical Depression 2 to the last into Hurricane Jeanne. The dedication, awareness, and effectiveness of AOC and its employees occurred well before any hurricanes were on the horizon and later bore wonderful fruit in the pace of battle.
Capt. Bob Maxson, of the NOAA Corps, an aircraft commander of the NOAA Gulfstream-IV hurricane surveillance jet as well as AOC chief, was in the thick of things during that hectic period. Not only did he orchestrate the evacuation of aircraft and personnel from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., the base during Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, he flew a record-breaking six consecutive nighttime missions (the previous record was three) on the G-IV during Hurricane Ivan, while also overseeing AOC's daytime evacuation. This included Secretary of Commerce Don Evans' and Deputy Secretary Ted Kassinger's (separate) visits to AOC and subsequent rides aboard P-3 hurricane hunter flights into Ivan.
The unrelenting pace of the storms required back-to-back, day and night flights, forcing the P-3 and G-IV flight crews into a grueling schedule. Maintenance personnel were constantly vigilant on the ground and in flight, patching leading edges of the aircraft after each turbulent flight and keeping mechanical systems up and running safely. When all was said and done, NOAA aircraft flew 65 missions to support tracking of several major storms, including Tropical Storm Bonnie and U.S. landfalling hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in support of hurricane surveillance, reconnaissance and research. More than 475 flight hours were logged, 100,000 nautical miles of track lines flown, and 1,200 dropsondes launched into storms to take meteorological observations. (Click NOAA satellite image for larger view of Hurricane Ivan taken at 1:45 p.m. ET on Sept. 12, 2004. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
Twenty-four year veteran meteorologist and P-3 and G-IV flight director Jack Parrish, who currently is program manager of the G-IV, flew continually aboard the G-IV during Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricanes Charley, Frances and part of Ivan, and was able to finish qualifying a newly trained flight director for the G-IV. The G-IV flies in the steering currents at the edges of a hurricane, and its data have improved hurricane landfall forecasts by up to 25 percent—potentially saving lives as well as millions of dollars in evacuation costs. During Hurricane Ivan, Parrish had to switch from the G-IV to a P-3 as flight director—while still coordinating G-IV flights—to substitute for an ill colleague. It had been several years since he'd been flight director of a P-3, which is far more nerve wracking than the G-IV as the P-3 flies directly into the eyewall.
"With only a day's notice, I was switched over to the P-3 and into a Category 5 hurricane we went," said Parrish. "It was the worst eyewall I'd seen this season—an absolute ring of fire on radar, and we really had to watch ourselves. It was really rough on the airplane." (Click NOAA image for larger view of NOAA meteorologist and P-3 and G-IV flight director Jack Parrish (middle) and NOAA P-3 Systems Crew Chief Sean McMillan (left) briefing Commerce Secretary Donald Evans aboard a NOAA P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
Parrish flew four straight days in Ivan and then into Jeanne as flight director, and it was the worst possible time for him. His wife, suffering from cancer, was undergoing chemotherapy and was extremely weak, yet had to care for their kids and deal with lost power and other fallout from the storms on her own. Parrish said, "This one time, if NOAA could have offered me anything, I would have taken it, but they had no choice. It's what we all have to do together out there. Sometimes we can't take care of our own people when we're busy taking care of everyone else."
The upside, Parrish said, to the number of flights was the ability to qualify more people as hurricane flight directors and pilots. Paul Flaherty, a G-IV flight director, was trained and completed his P-3 qualification while flying with Parrish in Hurricane Jeanne. Lt. Mike Silah, NOAA Corps, also got in his requisite number of hurricane flights, and qualified to be a P-3 aircraft commander during Frances. His first solo flight was into Ivan, where he flew with Parrish.
According to Silah, "This is a time of year we all look forward to. It was hard this year because Florida took a toll, but exciting because the flights really mattered. The perfect storm for us would be a storm that offers the best research opportunities but that doesn't threaten land in any way. Every time a storm was headed for Tampa, we headed for New Orleans. My wife got sick of having to move the lawn furniture into the garage by herself."
Silah flew into Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. "The high point was the end," he said. "All of us were pretty tired by then. The step frequency radiometer flights allowed us to measure real-time surface winds, and this year it worked exceptionally well. Our technicians really did a fantastic job. We were able to map the wind field. That was a direct benefit to the people where the hurricane made landfall. For me that was the highlight because it was some of the more important information we got this year."
According to Silah, "This year we needed everyone to step up, and no one did that better than Jack Parrish. I just can't say enough about Jack and hope that people realize how important he was to this season. You could not tell on the airplane that Jack had been away from the P-3 for a while and that he was dealing with all these things on the ground. I can't say enough about his contribution this year. It was easy for me to do what I had to do, knowing he was going to sit there and keep us out of trouble. He was carrying a great load personally, and his ability to put that aside for six weeks was really an inspiration to us."
Anyone who has traveled six non-stop hours coast to coast can imagine the discomfort of flying nearly 150 turbulent mission hours in less than a month. Paul Flaherty did just that as flight director aboard both the G-IV and the P-3. Because of the manpower shortage in flight directors, he was called back to Tampa from a project in New England to fly a G-IV mission around Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Charley, only to head back to New England the next morning. His neighbors pitched in and took care of his house during Charley while he was away. He returned to Tampa to fly during the next three hurricanes and spent 17 of 19 days in the air. He found it nearly impossible to keep up with his graduate school work and didn't meet his new next-door neighbor until many weeks had passed. (Click NOAA satellite image for larger view of Hurricane Charley taken at 1:45 p.m. EDT on Aug. 13, 2004. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
"There's an uneasy feeling when you're taking off out of MacDill Air Force Base and looking down on your neighborhood, knowing there's a hurricane coming," he said. "While you know you'll be landing somewhere else, you can't help but worry about your family, house, belongings, friends, pets and neighbors, but we know we're doing this for the right reasons. We can help a lot more people from the air."
Those at AOC on the ground couldn't help but worry about the safety of their colleagues in flight as well as their homes and families. Lori Bast, who handles public affairs for AOC, is married to Greg Bast, a P-3 flight engineer. "It was very stressful because my husband was flying and we have a house and three dogs in Safety Harbor and I'm here at work making sure media are getting on airplanes. I was worried about Greg, but he said they were safer up there than we were on the ground, and he was worried sick about me. Greg was in Hurricane Andrew and lost his house. I never lost anything so I didn't know what to expect. So I prayed a lot."
Mark Rogers is an avionics technician who flew on a P-3 through Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. With a house on the Alafaya River, he and his family were among those of AOC most likely to suffer property damage from flooding after the hurricanes. "Frances was the big one," Rogers said. "We got one of the biggest floods I've ever seen. I live in a stilt home so it didn't get my house, but I built a room underneath that got whacked pretty good. I had about 10 feet of water in my yard. I pulled my boat up to the stairs and used it to get around. The flood lasted a week, which is pretty unusual."
Rogers sent his wife and 17-month old baby to Colorado after Frances and then to Jacksonville, Fla., after Jeanne. "It's a little hard to stay focused on the job at hand when you have personal interest in what's going on below. You have to put it aside and do your job...and complain about it when you land," he said. "One thing struck home this time. Though I've flown through so many storms, it's never had quite the personal impact because you're flying in storms over different countries and states. It's different when the storm is going over your own house, and it adds more importance to your job. You realize how dangerous these storms are and the pain and suffering they cause. Instead of seeing it from afar, you experience it firsthand. We were luckier than some people I know." (Click NOAA satellite image for larger view of Hurricane Frances taken at 11:26 a.m. ET on Sept. 5, 2004. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
from the NOAA Hurricane Research
Division who were flying on the aircraft
Dunion's baby arrived six weeks early, shortly after his G-IV flights into Tropical Storm Bonnie and the very day of Hurricane Charley's landfall in Florida. Fortunately he was on the ground when the call came to take his wife to the hospital. He spent most of Hurricane Frances at the NOAA National Hurricane Center, spending long days in front of the computer and sleepless nights with his newborn. By the time Ivan arrived, he was back in the air.
"I agreed to fly into Ivan when it was south of Cuba, and my wife was supportive of it. My only stipulation was that if it came close to home, I'd have to rotate out and go home. When Ivan started to get closer, it was nerve wracking because I knew I'd have to get to Tampa. I beat the storm by about a day and got home in time to get the house ready. My wife handled it very well. The one thing I had in my corner is that she's always wanted to fly. She's nervous when I go out but definitely supports it."
Dunion's first hurricane flight was in 1997, during Hurricane Erika. Is it providence that he named his daughter Erika and that she was born in Florida on the day Hurricane Charley made landfall?
Jim McFadden, AOC's program manager for heavy aircraft, is responsible for coordinating all hurricane aircraft activities with the NOAA Hurricane Center, Hurricane Research Division scientists, Air Force, FAA and other agencies. He has been with NOAA and its predecessor agency for more than 40 years, and he's pretty much seen it all. He said that "In terms of deploying to different locations and flying hurricanes, this was the busiest time we've had in my career within a short period of time."
Deploying from other locations, such as Barbados, requires that more arrangements be made and greater efforts be undertaken. The P-3 aircraft had to deploy from New Orleans during Frances and didn't get a chance to return to Tampa before Ivan came along. "In the early stages, Miami was in the landfall forecast, and my wife was in Miami and couldn't get around because she was waiting for knee replacement surgery. I had to hotfoot it back to put shutters up, and it was like a three-ring circus during that period." From there McFadden went with the plane to St. Croix, where it deployed into Ivan.
"It was a monumental effort by everybody at AOC and the NOAA Hurricane Center," McFadden said. "Those folks at NHC are just something else. Max Mayfield and his forecasters are some of the nicest and sharpest people I've ever met in my life. The public should be happy to have them there. They do a terrific job."
McFadden celebrated a major career milestone during Hurricane Ivan. He made his 500th hurricane penetration since his first in 1967 through Hurricane Inez. The crews of both P-3s wrangled over the honor of taking him on the flight, and N43RF, otherwise known as "Miss Piggy," won out. (Click NOAA National Weather Service Mobile, Ala., Doppler radar image for larger view of Hurricane Ivan coming ashore taken at 12:52 a.m. ET on Sept. 16, 2004. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
"There were lots of good friends on that flight, and it was a wonderful experience," McFadden said. "It's the most interesting season I've had, and you won't get any arguments on that from anyone else."
McFadden was quick to add, however, that, "The hurricane flights are what draw attention to AOC, but with all the airplanes and people engaged in other projects of NOAA, hurricanes are only one small part of AOC's operation. All the hard work others do is so important—right whale surveys, snow and coastal surveys, and post-hurricane work, for example. Some of the planes did post hurricane flights with cameras and sensors on the airplanes. Those projects get lost in the mix. You hear about guys going into storms and that's where most of our press comes from. But during the evacuations, everybody was there and pitching in. It was a wonderful experience to see the camaraderie and how well people worked together. It was great."
NOAA last week celebrated a changing of the guard at the Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla. Capt. Stephen Kozak, NOAA Corps, relieved Capt. Bob Maxson, NOAA Corps, as commanding officer during a formal change of command ceremony that included retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA Administrator, two NOAA rear admirals and the director of the NOAA Hurricane Center. The ceremony provided an opportunity to pay tribute to center personnel and their outgoing leader for their professionalism, dedication and sacrifices made during the extremely arduous 2004 hurricane season. (Click NOAA image for larger view of change of command ceremony at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla., which took place November 1. Pictured left to right are retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA Administrator, NOAA Corps Admirals Sam De Bow and Richard Behn, and Capt. Stephen Kozak, NOAA Corps, who relieved Capt. Bob Maxson, NOAA Corps, as commanding officer of the AOC. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA.”)
The ceremony took place in Hangar 5, home of AOC on MacDill Air Force Base. Maxson, who is retiring, was awarded a NOAA Corps commendation medal for a career of exemplary service, including his tenure as commanding officer at AOC since 2000.
Maxson also accepted on behalf of all AOC personnel a NOAA Unit Citation for their exceptional performance during this year's unusually intense hurricane season, including the four hurricanes that struck Florida and forced AOC to evacuate while still carrying on flights. The citation said in part: "The number and frequency of the storms, not just hurricanes, kept the members of ...the Aircraft Operations Center, in high operational tempo, with an unprecedented amount of activity in August and September.
NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nationís coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
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